Recently, urbanists and others in support of density have mostly focused on the affordability case for increased housing in the urban core. In addition to highlighting pretty board consensus among economists that, yes, supply and demand is relevant to housing costs, urbanists point out that zoning that only allows for relatively large single-family homes will inherently be off-limits to certain economic groups. Finally, they argue that denser development facilitates public transit, which liberates people from the expense of owning and operating a car.
Now that I think of it, I’m really surprised that there hasn’t been a greater emphasis on the environmental case for density. After all, this is a city who’s political establishment and political image was built on environmentalism. Also, there’s that whole climate change thing. It’s hard to predict how the average liberal voter in Austin will feel about what the city should do to address housing costs, but you can bet that they’ll say that global warming is a problem and that policies aimed at reducing car use are probably part of the solution.
Obviously, one reason that the environmental narrative for density hasn’t been strong is that many of the official voices of environmentalism in Austin have spent the last 30 years fighting developers, often in alignment with neighborhood associations. This is what Mose Buchele’s excellent article in KUT/Austin Monitor recently displayed.
Bunch, the executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance, says he was opposed to CodeNEXT in part because he didn’t like the added density it would have brought to Central Austin.
“The place to do that is on green fields development,” he says. “Do it right at the front end rather than scrape our existing city neighborhoods and try to force it on top of existing communities.”
This isn’t the first time Bunch has said something to this effect, but this apparent endorsement of sprawl was even more explicit. He’s getting raked over the coals for it, and not just by the usual suspects. The Austin Chronicle, for instance:
Buchele’s reporting, citing experts and research, presented density as clearly superior environmentally to sprawl. So did a similar article by ThinkProgress, which parachuted into town to explore the environmentalist division over Prop J. Edgar Walters, a reporter for the Texas Tribune, didn’t hesitate to declare Bunch’s views as insane: