www.urbanenvironmentalists.org 
Urban Environmentalists
Platform, December 2019

Mission

Values

Principles

Environmentalism

Urgent Climate Action

Equity and Environmental Justice

Healthy Urban Environments

Building for People

Abundant and Affordable Housing

Efficient Transportation

Equitable Planning

Sharing Space

Efficient use of Land

Sharing Streets

Sharing Vehicles

FAQ

Further Reading

Mission

To address the climate and inequality crises by transforming cities and towns into inclusive communities designed around people rather than cars.

Values

  1. Environmentalism: We believe that all people are entitled to healthy communities and environments that are supportive of human life and the life of non-human species. We believe that achieving this requires a stable climate.
  2. Building for people: We promote vibrant, diverse urban communities that nurture their inhabitants and benefit society, and provide abundant housing and opportunities for all.
  3. Sharing space: We value efficient, equitable use of all limited, shared resources; in particular, our planet’s land is an essential, fixed resource whose benefits should be broadly shared.

Principles

Environmentalism

Urgent Climate Action

We recognize transformational change is required to address the urgent climate crisis. The international scientific consensus is that rapid, deep emissions cuts are needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. We choose to focus on promoting actions that help build healthy cities, like sustainable transportation, building electrification and decarbonization, reducing waste, and eliminating sources of urban air pollution, although we support other actions consistent with transformative climate action. With climate change in progress, new buildings need to be resilient to the growing risks of fire, floods, and heat waves. Buildings designed for climate resiliency can also help reduce emissions and better withstand earthquakes. Resilient, all-electric, multifamily housing near transit can serve as a centerpiece of a “Green New Deal.” We believe climate action is more likely to succeed when focused on a positive, equitable, human-centered vision that highlights the benefits of sustainable communities.

Equity and Environmental Justice

We support the work of our allies seeking environmental justice, who set their own agendas and hold decision-making power, and we must work to reverse the historical inequities of exclusionary zoning and redlining. Communities of color and low income continue to be forced to directly bear the brunt of environmental pollution and disinvestment: these communities and their residents should benefit from new investment and the reduction or elimination of local sources of pollution. We decry the shameful history of racism and exclusionary motivations in parts of the environmental movement, particularly efforts to restrict immigration or coercively control population. We advocate for measuring local and regional progress towards climate goals per capita, so that accommodating more people does not count as increasing emissions. We discourage community meeting formats that amplify privileged, exclusionary voices; instead, we support broad and representative community input in local decision-making that is focused on systemic objectives.

Healthy Urban Environments

We support public open and green space which encourages social interaction, including across race and income groups. Living in dense urban environments should not mean isolation from nature or exposure to pollution. We favor accessible, shared greenspace rather than requiring space to be reserved for private yards and car storage. We support relaxing height limits and setback requirements to make room for shared space, from corner playgrounds to apartment courtyards to accessible parkland. Providing shared space complements mixed-use zoning and reduction of car-dependence to enable complete communities with access to outdoor recreation, healthy food, and clean air.

Building for People

Abundant and Affordable Housing

We believe new market rate, subsidized, public, and cooperative housing, coupled with anti-displacement and tenant protections, are all essential for addressing the urban housing shortage. Decades of rigid, inequitable housing policy has focused resources towards low-density development, creating a deep shortage of homes in urban communities with access to jobs and services. The result is soaring home prices and rents, waitlists for subsidized affordable housing, rising numbers of people suffering from displacement or homelessness, and workers suffering longer and longer commutes. We favor inclusionary zoning policies which increase the supply of affordable housing such as density bonuses for affordable units. We support policy innovation to encourage equitable funding and ownership mechanisms including community land trusts, limited equity cooperative housing, and land value taxes. This policy innovation can occur simultaneously with expanding supply of all infill housing categories: solving the housing shortage requires an all-of-the-above strategy.

Efficient Transportation

We support transportation planning and funding that prioritizes the most accessible, affordable, safe, and healthy options to serve large numbers of people: these include public transportation, biking, and walking. Compact, integrated communities are the best solution to traffic, not extending sprawl and building neighborhoods that require driving for all the activities of daily life. Our society has not sufficiently prioritized or invested in transit for decades, and this has disproportionately harmed people who need access to transit most. Well-funded, integrated, and effective transit should be welcoming and accessible for all people irrespective of their age, race, ability, economic status, and gender. We prioritize building homes for people over space for cars; we support ending parking minimums for new housing as well as building more homes near high-quality transit. We support the creation of “complete” streets that are safe for all people to stroll, bike, or wheel through their neighborhood. We support emerging mobility technologies that complement transit to promote pollution-free, human-scale, equitable mobility. In particular, ebikes show immense promise to make bicycling accessible for more and longer trips and for more people.

Equitable Planning

We oppose exclusionary, low density, single-use zoning that drives car-centric sprawl. We strongly support infill housing, and we oppose using environmental laws to block or delay infill housing construction. We support mixed-use zoning that allows people to live near jobs and services, with streamlined approval for multifamily housing and pedestrian-centered retail. We prioritize building new housing in historically exclusive communities, in combination with anti-displacement measures, to expand access to opportunity and achieve neighborhood integration. Relatedly, we believe the desires of residents in historically disadvantaged communities at risk of displacement deserve high consideration; planning decisions and reforms should prioritize improving equity, evaluated both for individuals and for communities.

Sharing Space

Efficient use of Land

We promote living in compact, walkable neighborhoods for environmental and social benefits. Dense communities have significantly lower per capita emissions of toxic and climate pollutants from transportation and the built environment. They also allow more efficient use of materials, energy, and water. Dense housing preserves land for agriculture, forestry, parks, and wilderness. Preserving that land protects ecosystems that provide biodiversity and natural carbon sinks; diverse ecosystems require connected, unfragmented spaces to thrive. Compact, walkable communities also reduce social isolation and provide broad access to jobs, schools, services, and social gathering spaces close to where people live. We believe small cities, towns, and suburbs can also gain these benefits by creating walkable neighborhoods that include “missing middle” housing like fourplexes and garden apartments.

Sharing Streets

We support replacing roads designed for cars with streets that favor more equitable modes of transportation. Cars do not scale as a mode of local and regional transportation; they require a large amount of land for roads and parking lots, which only increases as neighborhoods grow. We support replacing general travel lanes and parking lanes with transit-only lanes and bike lanes in order to enable buses, trains, bikes, and scooters to move quickly and safely throughout the city, and we support decongestion pricing, traffic calming, and car-restricted streets to deter private vehicles from taking up street space in the densest parts of our cities.

Sharing Vehicles

We support shared transportation over private vehicles in order to more efficiently serve urban environments. We support public transportation, bike share, scooter share, and other emerging shared transportation modes. We believe that in urban areas ride hailing services and autonomous vehicles should only be operated in shared fleets, which are well-regulated and zero-emission, so that the externalities of these options can be effectively managed. We support seamless integration of public transit across agencies, seamless integration of bike and scooter share across operators, and integration of both with each other.

FAQ

  1. Can we simply switch to electric cars to avoid environmental impacts from driving? Cars do not scale as a mode of local and regional transportation. This is an issue of geometry relating to road and parking space requirements, and will remain true even if gasoline-powered cars were replaced with electric cars. It is true that electric cars can dramatically reduce climate pollution from gasoline and diesel combustion and provide some local air quality benefits. However, cars also generate local air pollution from tire, brake, and road wear, and vehicle manufacturing (including batteries for electric cars) represents a considerable portion of lifecycle climate emissions and other environmental impacts. Being a very energy-intensive mode of transportation, electric cars necessitate large quantities of electricity generation, which inevitably has some environmental impacts even if renewable. Cars facilitate and encourage sprawling land use and design, which exacerbates climate pollution from buildings and material manufacturing and consumes large amounts of land. Finally, climate policies in wealthy countries should be designed to provide a template for other countries to follow, and “electrified sprawl” is simply not a scalable solution for 8-10 billion people.
  2. Will autonomous cars reduce congestion? Autonomous vehicles (AVs) have the potential to exacerbate street congestion through induced demand, as reduced labor costs, increased convenience, driverless pick-ups, and “deadheading” of empty vehicles all potentially contribute to an increase in vehicle miles travelled (VMT). We have seen this occur in many places with ride hailing services even at the higher costs required when drivers are present. The long history of failed attempts to reduce congestion by adding more road capacity, and recent experiments to test the magnitude of induced demand, underline the limits of this strategy. Moreover, the arrival date of autonomous vehicles has consistently been underestimated. It now appears that they won’t arrive for more than a decade. Given the limited time window for climate action, we need to apply technology available today, rather than just waiting for future technology to arrive. In the meantime we can develop policy to make sure that autonomous vehicles serve the values and principles laid out here.
  3. Will building new housing in urban areas lead to further gentrification and displacement? Most academic studies suggest that even new market-rate housing targeted at high income households in gentrifying neighborhoods tends to reduce rents and displacement pressures in the aggregate. However, we believe that this question misses the deeper observation that our car-centric land use policies and exclusionary zoning are the root cause of the new displacement crises in urban areas. We believe that rolling back or eliminating exclusionary zoning is required to achieve equitable housing outcomes, and we believe that implementation should prioritize adding housing in wealthy, high-opportunity neighborhoods that currently exclude apartments. Much new urban housing is being funneled into sensitive communities experiencing displacement pressure because they have been historically zoned for higher density and because exclusive neighborhoods have been effective at blocking new housing. The vast areas currently zoned for single family homes only, that prohibit even small multifamily housing, provide broad opportunities to increase housing supply without going against the wishes of residents in sensitive communities.
  4. Will building new housing in urban areas lead to increased traffic and exposure to pollution? Building new sprawl will lead to more traffic and total emissions of pollutants than building infill housing as more people are forced to commute via car. When people have to drive for all of the activities of daily life, this creates high traffic at a regional scale. However, we also believe that infill should prioritize approaches to reduce car-dependence so that traffic and pollution is alleviated especially where the most people are exposed to it. This can be accomplished through all the mechanisms described above, such as mixed use zoning, complete streets safe for all users, removing free or subsidized parking and road space for cars, and providing ample alternatives in the form of public and shared transportation modes.
  5. Many environmentalists prefer living in lower density neighborhoods because they want access to nature, gardens, and the outdoors. Will they have these same opportunities in dense cities? We believe that this framing presents a false choice between urban housing and access to nature. Because so much of our urban land is reserved for cars and private yards, and because of the rise of modernist architecture and single-use zoning, people have become accustomed to austere urban spaces devoid of natural, pleasant, and human-scale elements. Traditional urban patterns and urban landscapes in many places around the world achieve much greater densities than typically found in the US while supporting publicly accessible natural areas and gardens. Moreover, the idea that low density housing provides access to nature and the outdoors has always been incomplete and inequitable, because it means that people who cannot afford large plots of land, who do not have access to cars, or who are unable to drive because of age or ability, are denied these amenities.

Further Reading

  1. The IPCC Special Report on 1.5C sets the timeline for rapid action to address the climate crisis, and the UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2019 provided policy recommendations including removing barriers to building multifamily housing in urban areas.
  2. Alex Baca published The Green New Deal’s Huge Flaw in February 2019, noting that the initial resolution “ignores the most crucial environmental, economic, and racial-justice issue of all: where we live.” This inspired the formation of our group, and Alex spoke to us last April.
  3. The Equitable & Just National Climate Platform is a statement of principles for incorporating environmental justice into national climate policy.
  4. Cities for People and Soft City provide a design framework for healthy, enjoyable, human-centered dense urban environments.
  5. The YIMBY Canon provides reading on the racist history of American housing policy, the origins of the urban housing shortage and its relationship to affordability, and events precipitating the formation of the YIMBY movement.
  6. The Sightline Institute provides a wealth of resources on the linkages between housing and climate policy, especially the importance of missing middle housing.
  7. Shareable published a series of articles in the fall of 2019 on the history of exclusionary zoning and discussing solutions for the housing crisis, as well as the book Sharing Cities.
  8. Housing Underproduction in California is an Up for Growth report documenting the housing supply deficit of 3.4 million homes in California and illustrating two scenarios for filling this deficit: a sprawl-oriented “more of the same” scenario and an infill-oriented “smart growth” scenario. The smart growth scenario is shown to achieve very large macroeconomic and environmental benefits.
  9. Donald Shoup wrote Parking Reform will Save the City this September as a follow-on to his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking.
  10. The Greenlining Mobility Equity Framework and equitable autonomous vehicle framework provide a template for equitable transportation policy amidst historical underfunding of transit and innovations in mobility technology.
  11. Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics provides a template for 21st century economics that foregrounds environmental sustainability. Also check out Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing to understand how accidents of history and political interests caused land and other fixed resources to be neglected from mainstream economics for a century.