Washburn

Eco-Density - Coming to a Town Near You

Over the next few months or the next year or two at most, a new concept will be embraced by real estate developers, civic leaders, and environmentalists; eco-density. I hijacked the term from the mayor of Vancouver, who coined it to explain why he was a proponent of much higher density development around rail transit stations. In spite of devising a very clever term, his concept and term were viewed quite negatively. This is due to the oft used expression that "there are two things people hate; density and sprawl." Yet we are shortly going to embrace density as one of the most important solutions to energy security and climate change. High density living and working is far more energy efficient and less green house gas-emitting than any other alternative. Soon to be released Brookings research shows that there is a three to one relationship between drivable sub-urban household energy usage/GHG emissions versus a walkable urban household. When you live and work in a walkable urban place, you walk, bike, or take transit for most trips from the home and you unintentionally share your heat with neighbors. Given that the built environment (buildings and transportation to get between those buildings) are responsible for 73% of all American GHG emissions, using this three-to-one lever becomes crucial if we have a hope of addressing climate change. This is the major reason eco-density will become accepted. There is another reason, however. These include the improvement in quality of life of those who most oppose density, the nearby single family neighborhoods. This may seem counter-intuitive but it is true. If the negative externalities of a high density walkable urban place are managed properly, such as keeping noise and traffic contained within a walkable urban place and designated corridors, while keeping parking out of the neighborhoods, these neighbors are going to find that they have a much higher quality of life. The reason? They can live in suburban splendor yet be within walking distance of great urbanity. The end result is their housing values will increase. Shortly, there will be enough evidence that this is the case and the most extreme opponents will become reluctant supporters. Civic leaders are going to understand the need for high density around rail transit when they learn how this high density and high value real estate will pay for the capital and operating costs of the transit system itself. Known as "value capture," there have always been ways through history to pay for the very transportation improvements by the increasing land values made by those improvements. See the blog entry from last week to see how powerful it can be. Having a way to pay for needed infrastructure and giving politicians ribbons to cut in front of the camera is highly attractive. Ultimately, it is going to come down to building high density, walkable urban places, i.e., eco-density, particularly around rail transit stations, or not address climate change. Let me see; status quo around rail transit stations or save the planet? Let me think.... ——- Christopher B. Leinberger is a land use strategist, developer, teacher, consultant and author, helping to make progressive development profitable. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream from Island Press.