Don't let policy makers say density is the problem
Author: Gladwyn d'Souza | Category: Books | Environment | Health | Date: 05-27-2020
Density matters because it’s safer. Covid19 has revealed that dense cities like Taipei, Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul, Saigon, Tokyo etc. are safer because of both inherent wealth and competent leadership. The cities' wealth relative to the countryside allows it to respond faster and more competently to a threat. Competent leadership can utilize these resources to make a big life versus death difference, as we’ve seen when comparing these cities to those in the US.
Yet mass media has asked if density is the problem? This is essentially a racist question reflecting the paranoia of white America in years gone by. It reflects our genocidal indifference to native landscapes. Environmentally, the issue comes down to urbanization of habitat and the perverse tax and risk incentives that make it happen. Thoughtful media has responded by pointing out that dense places like Manhattan have fewer cases than NY suburban locations. City Labs for example said: We have a long history of blaming urban areas rather than economic factors for physical and moral ills.
Conservatives' racism in appraising Covid19 arises from their forever quest for cheap labor.
Dense walkable cities, like Rome, were the past. Today, cities like Shanghai, Taipei, and Tokyo represent the competent present and the ecological future. In the Sierra Club's Sustainable Land Use group we promote taller denser walkable habitation patterns on transit corridors so that we can restore ecosystem services elsewhere. Walkable centered cities are essential today as transit succumbs to Covid19. But other threats existed before Covid19 like fire and sea level rise. The former requires restoration of the hydrological cycle which is most easily achieved with beavers. George Monbiot calls beaver restoration a program of benign neglect- it has no cost. The latter requires managed retreat from coastal areas to allow wetlands to migrate landward. Coincidently, beavers are a keystone species for grassland and woodland species and wetlands are responsible for 70% of all life on earth. If we can address the social problems underlying urban ills we get life saving benefits in ecosystem services.
In recent years suburban diseases have threatened the city. Ecoli contaminated lettuce from Salinas frequently rears it’s diarrheatic head. Five years ago Zika infected mosquitos travelled across lush suburban lawns to the city. West Nile Virus continues to lurk in the disturbed habitats of peri urban suburbs around cities like Sacramento. In recent years these hyper urban population have tried to burn cities like Chico and Los Angeles down at another new term- the Wildlands Urban Interface. In fact the "new normal" was christened here.
At Sustainable Land Use we also promote Transfer Of Development Rights to achieve managed retreat. New York used a version of TDR after Hurricane Sandy to allow coastal lands to preserves dunes and other habitats as hurricane buffers. North Carolina has used TDR to remove hog farmers from river inundated landscapes after hurricanes. Under TDR the denser habitation location like downtown becomes a receiving area. Sending areas are where the insurance cost should reflect the risk. Other places where this market mechanism has been successfully used is in preserving hillside habitat in Belmont, CA and Morgan Hill, CA and preserving historic buildings in Palo Alto, CA.
Two ways to address urban ill are a Guaranteed Basic Income and building housing instead of parking. Covid 19 has put both GBI and City Housing Stock on the policy map. The former because of the inability to work bullshit jobs to pay for essentials like rent. The latter because of crowded conditions that promote the progression of Covid19. Andrew Yang ran on a GBI platform; we may yet see it as the disease progresses through the 2020s. Environmental degradation leads to poverty by displacing susbistence agriculture. GBI is the simple remedy. Getting housing instead of parking should be a no brainer. It costs as much to build a parking spot as a room on the peninsula. In addition, cars take up more than 30% of the city area, an area desperately needed for social distancing. With Covid19 most cars have been parked resulting in stopped oil shipments around the world and tankers floating unloaded outside coastal mega coastal cities like LA. There are many blessings from Covid19 but that last one represents relief from fossil fuel driven Climate Change. People may not be driving but they still need housing to social distance. New housing stock should have more rooms instead of parking. Solution- Parking lots should be repurposed for housing.
Density is the solution. We can have safer cities without cars and without intrusion on the Wildlands Urban Interface. Social ills should be addressed with GBI and replaced housing stocks as we account for the changes from Covid 19. Let’s not walk into racist ideas around density made concrete by issues like Amadou Dialo on the sidewalk. We need look no further than Taipei, San Francisco, or Saigon,and New York. Density is safer and leadership matters. Don't let policy makers say density is the problem- it could cost you your life.