Durable Growth, Environment

Construction’s high carbon cost shouldn’t stop smart growth

Downtown Orinda

by narcoticpants, on Flickr

In the aftermath of Plan Bay Area’s passage, development skeptics from the region’s small towns, especially in Marin, have circulated a study showing that new construction gives of much higher levels of CO2 than renovating existing buildings even if that new construction is done in a very ecologically-friendly way. This, they say, is evidence that encouraging new construction will only increase our carbon footprint, and so Plan Bay Area, not to mention smart growth itself, is a sham.

While the study, from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is accurate in its assessment, skeptics are on shaky ground with this line of reasoning.

The study tries to answer the question, “Is new environmentally friendly development as greenhouse-gas efficient as renovating old development?” The answer, as common sense and the study say, is an almost* unequivocal yes. Construction is remarkably energy-intensive, and on its own is not a good way to improve our environment. We need to retrofit our existing structures as much as possible, adapting our old, underused built environment for a more urban future.

However, in the small towns most opposed to Plan Bay Area, this won’t happen. Development skeptics purport the two alternatives are Grow or Don’t Grow, like their towns are islands, but that’s not a good understanding of our region. Instead, the alternatives are Grow or Grow Elsewhere. Marin especially did wonders by protecting its greenbelt and is in many ways a precursor to Plan Bay Area and the urbanist movement. However, the result has been – as the veterans of those fights say – a chronic housing shortage, displaced growth into Sonoma and Contra Costa, and a steady loss of those counties’ farmland and greenbelt. Nobody wants small town Bay Area to look like Walnut Creek (at least, I hope not), but Walnut Creek is in part a result of those towns’ development policies, as are Rohnert Park and the Oakland Hills.

While we could give up and do the minimum in the name of reducing our CO2 footprint, in reality we would just push people further out from the City and cause more sprawl. Just because it’s outside the borders of a town or county doesn’t mean it’s any less a tragedy. And even if that new construction were built to smart-growth standards, it would still be built, so the CO2 will be emitted no matter what we do.

It’s a preposterous argument to make that we shouldn’t build anything because it would add to a small town’s CO2 footprint. It’s just tricky accounting, offloading the problem to other cities and counties.

The Bay Area just is not a rust belt area that underwent the kind of decline this study tries to examine. Were we Baltimore or Cleveland, our conversation would be much different, as we’d have bountiful abandoned buildings to repurpose. This is what is happening now in downtown Detroit. But we’re not. Our most bountiful development resources are derelict industrial park brownfields. It is the monumental waste of space that is our office park parking lots, our gray fields. That will necessarily mean new construction.

A far better approach is to view these mandates as opportunities to make more small-town greatness. Our downtowns are the heart and soul of our towns, but between them is bland nothing. That we keep our density safe in downtown boxes but call it evil if it ever tries to escape is a profound disservice to our cities, region, and the environment development skeptics argue we should save.

Why should we dedicate so much land to parking around VTA’s light rail? Why does downtown San Anselmo get 34 unit-per-acre housing but we call it “stack & pack housing” just a mile east? Downtown Orinda could colonize its arterial roads with village-level density and make a grand walking street. Downtown Mill Valley could colonize its strip-mall-dominated flats and make a great town greater. That is the essence of smart growth.

And the benfits of smart growth go beyond simply reducing CO2 emissions from travel. Smart growth positively changes public health, public safety, town budgets, water pollution, greenbelt preservation, farmland preservation, and affordable housing, among others. But yes, repurposing emits less CO2 than new construction. But this is a horrible reason to halt all growth in small town Bay Area. Not only will we be throwing away an opportunity to make our small towns even better, but the growth would just happen elsewhere.

*The exception to this is renovating warehouses, which are so energy-inefficient it’s best to just knock them down and start over.

A version of this post will be cross-posted with The Greater Marin.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

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