The climate case for density in Austin

evolve sign

I was talking to a longtime Austin pol a few months about how the dialogue on development has changed in recent years. In the 1990’s, he recalled, the guiding concern surrounding development was environmental protection. As housing prices have shot up in recent years, the focus has shifted to affordability.

I think he’s right, but he doesn’t have to be. It’s true that urbanists and others who support allowing more housing in Central Austin have mostly emphasized the well-established benefits of boosting housing supply. That argument has largely overshadowed the environmental case for density. Don’t get me wrong –– the environmental arguments are definitely out there, but they don’t get anywhere near as much attention as the affordability arguments.

While the affordability argument is convincing to a large segment of the public, there is also a significant segment of the political establishment and the left-leaning electorate that doesn’t buy it. They’re not convinced that boosting supply will have a meaningful effect on housing prices. They point to the luxury condos going up and argue that there’s no way to know whether simply allowing developers to build more units will end up actually serving those in the greatest need. They dismiss the economics as “trickle-down.”

However, many of those who are unconvinced of the affordability argument may be convinced to support density for the sake of the environment, particularly in the wake of increasingly dire warnings about global warming. If we cannot build up, we will build out, creating more and more sprawl that fuels car dependence and increases carbon emissions. Our efforts as a city to make our electric utility as green as possible are valiant but woefully insufficient. If big cities are going to do their part to mitigate climate trends, they have to stop sprawling.

Consider the fact that in 2015, Mayor Steve Adler attended the Paris climate accords, accompanied by CM Leslie Pool and County Commissioner Brigid Shea, both of whom are neighborhood preservation stalwarts. The two other density skeptics on Council –– Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter –– are similarly outspoken advocates for the environment in other policy domains.

And yet, if Adler has made any mention of climate change in his push to rewrite the land development code, it was pretty easy to miss. It didn’t come up in the 1,500-word message that Adler posted in August, when he suggested Council abandon CodeNEXT and begin a new process. “Environment” showed up once and “sustainability” twice, but none of them were elaborated on. It wasn’t one of the five major issues that he highlighted in the first sentence: “unaffordability, displacement, gentrification, flooding, and traffic.”

Similarly, the manifesto put out by Council’s land use reform advocates last year made no mention of the environmental implications of sprawl. Instead, it was focused entirely on economic justice.

As City Council and others in the city gear up for another battle over a rewrite of the land development code, density advocates might make their case better if they presented it as a critical part of a plan to combat climate change. Sure, it might get some Republicans grumbling, but last I checked, there are no Republicans on Council anymore.

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