Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Unintended Consequences of Environmentalistm

I'm reading a book called, "Triumph of the City" by Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser, wherein he talks about why high-density, urban living is the most environmentally beneficial way of living.  In one of the chapters, he writes about why so many antigrowth policies are bad for the environment. He also offers plenty of statistics regarding the relationship between carbon emission and population density, such as how "gas consumption per family per year declines by 106 gallons as the number of residents per square mile doubles," and how residents in California urban areas use so much less energy than residents of urban areas in the American south.

Given that so many locals justify blocking local development by invoking global warming, I thought it would be interesting to share the following summary from that chapter of the book:


So how should we interpret all this data? Simply put, if we wanted to reduce emissions by changing our land-development policies, more Americans should live in denser, more urban environments. More Americans should move to coastal California and fewer should live in Texas. California is blessed with a splendid natural climate that doesn't require much cooling in the summer or heat in the winter. Living in Houston or Atlanta requires a lot more energy for habitability, so then why aren't more Americans living in California?

The answer certainly isn't overcrowding. California's coastal areas are remarkably open. The drive along Route 280 through the heart of Silicon Valley is like a drive through an open Eden. There are about 2 people living on each acre in Santa Clara County. Marin County, just north of the bay, has more than one-and-a-quarter acres per person. By contrast, Montgomery County in Maryland has about 3 people per acre. Manhattan has 111 people per acre, and that isn't counting the vast crowd of workers that comes and goes each day.

Coastal California could house many millions more than it already does, but the growth in these coastal regions has fallen dramatically from its postwar heyday. Between 1950 and 1970, the population of Santa Clara County more than tripled, from fewer than three hundred thousand to more than one million. But between 1990 and 2008, Santa Clara County grew by only 17.8 percent, less than the national average, from 1.5 million to 1.76 million. Over the last seventeen years, Silicon Valley has been one of the most productive places on the planet, but its population growth has lagged behind the rest of the nation's.

Coastal California hasn't grown because it hasn't built much housing. An area that doesn't build much won't grow much. Coastal California's construction declines don't reflect a lack of demand. In 2007, the National Association of Realtors median sales price passed $800,000 in both San Francisco and San Jose. Even after the crash, these places remain the two most expensive areas in the continental United States, with average housing prices around $600,000 in the second quarter of 2010. Prices in California are kept high by draconian limits on new construction, like the sixty-acre minimum lot sizes that can be found in Marin County. These rules are joined with a policy of pulling more and more land off the market as protected parks and wildlife areas. By 2000, one quarter of the land in the Bay Area has become permanently protected, that is, off limits to building.

Many environmentalists see the reduction of development in the San Francisco Bay region as a great triumph. The pioneers of the Save the Bay movement, which formed to block development around the water, have become iconic figures in American environmentalism. The Friends of Mammoth case, which imposed environmental reviews on all new California projects, is seen as a watershed victory. The advocates of California's growth limitations are often put forward as ecological heroes. But they're not.

The enemies of development in California are quick to point out that restricting construction is necessary because of the state's sparse water supplies. Yet California would have more than enough water for its citizens if it didn't use so much of it irrigating naturally dry farmland. California's cities and suburbs use about 8.7 million acre-feet of water each year for irrigation. America is filled with wet regions that can raise crops. By redirecting water from farm areas to cities, California could easily provide enough water to sustain much higher density levels, which would reduce America's carbon footprint.

While limits on California's growth may make that state seem greener, they're making the country as a whole browner and increasing carbon emissions worldwide. Houston's developers should thank California's antigrowth movement. If they hadn't stopped building in coastal California, where incomes are high and the climate is sublime, then there wouldn't have been nearly as much demand for living in the less pleasant parts of the Sunbelt.

People who fight development don't get to choose the amount of new construction throughout the country; they only get to make sure it doesn't occur in their backyard. At the national level, a principle that could be called the law of conservation of construction appears to hold. When environmentalists stop development in the green places, it will occur in brown places. By using ecological arguments to oppose growth, California environmentalists are actually ensuring that America's carbon footprint will rise, by pushing new housing to less temperate climates.

The 1970 California Environmental Quality Act was a pioneering piece of legislation, which mandated that any local government project have an environmental impact review before it went forward. In 1973, an environmentally activist California Supreme Court interpreted this act to mean not only projects undertaken by local governments, but also projects permitted by local government, which means pretty much any large construction project in the state. In 2008, California's regulations generated 583 environmental impact reviews, considerably more than the 522 impact reviews that occurred nationwide in response to federal guidelines. These impact reviews add costs and delays to new construction, which ultimately make it even more expensive.

The great flaw of environmental impact reviews is their incompleteness. Each review only evaluates the impact of the project if it's approved, not the impact if it's denied and construction begins somewhere else, outside the jurisdiction of the California Supreme Court. The incompleteness of the reviews stacks the environmental deck against California construction and makes it seem as though it's always greener to stop new building. The full impact would note that permitting building in California would reduce construction somewhere else, such as the once pristine desert outside of Las Vegas. Assessing the full environmental cost of preventing construction in California would make that state's environmental policies look more brown than green.


Posted by Steve Sinai


Anonymous said...

Of course Glaeser point is that we DON'T further develop suburbs like Pacifica, but that we move to existing urban centers like Oakland perhaps. Steve, lead by example!! (I'll help you pack). So are you becoming an advocate for no-growth?

I wonder what Glaeser's reaction would be to your readers constantly moaning about the cost of maintaining our sewer plant and water infra-structure?? This video gives us a clue.

Scotty said...

This is precisely why much denser, mixed-use development is the greenest use of the quarry, but of course the wing nuts in this town would never stand for that. I truly envy the NIMBYs and their ability to naïvely ignore the big picture -- it must make their lives much simpler to just not pay attention to what they are doing to our children.

todd bray said...

Sour puss award nominee?

Steve Sinai said...

I doubt that Glaeser would object to people moving from Pacifica into SF or Oakland, but he argues that no-growth policies such as those in effect in Pacifica and the rest of the Bay Area restrict housing supply to the point that people can't afford to buy in SF or Oakland, unless they settle for a 900 sq. ft. condo or rotting shack.

Glaeser's point is that when you don't build a house in Pacifica, it's much more likely that they'll be forced to buy a house in a place like Petaluma or Livermore, rather than buying a house in SF. For someone who has a job in SF, it takes a lot more energy to get into SF from Petaluma or Livermore than from Pacifica.

And it should be obvious that the city's hostility toward business means we all burn gas on our way to buy what we need over the hill.

The Daily Show interview was pretty good. Stewart didn't mock Glaeser, and seemed to regard the book highly.

Scotty said...

@Todd: What kind of awards do you NIMBYs give each other? A gold-plated set of blinders?

Anonymous said...

The quarry plan for "denser, mixed-use development" - was righly called "greenwashing" by the Loma Prieta chapter of the Sierra Club, which forcefully came out against Peebles. Do you agree with the Sierra Club, Todd?

Fire Marshall Bill said...

I wonder what the Sierra Club's position was on the land management policies that made cutting trees and brush on your property a bureaucratic nightmare, right before they were cited as a major cause of the enormous and devastating brush fires in Lake Tahoe 2 years ago . . .

Anonymous said...

U wonder if Fire Marshall Bill knows this a blog about Pacifica, not Tahoe (or Texas - how can we miss you if you won't go away?)

Steve Sinai said...

Is this the same Sierra Club who, along with other no-growth groups, got Half Moon Bay to block Chop Keenan's development with legal games, only to have a court find in the Chopster's favor and force the city to spend 1/3 of its budget on settlement costs? (Bye-bye police department.)

Yes, I believe it is. Thanks, Sierra Club.

ian butler said...

The point about more people living in the fog belt to reduce air conditioning use is intriguing, but to encourage less farming in California so more people can live here is crazy. Sure, less water intensive crops like rice and cotton makes sense, but we need all the farmland we can get, and sprawl is already stealing huge swaths of productive land every year.

Unmentioned is the fact that the population pressures have already rendered the California coast one of 25 biological hotspots in the world, with a large numer of species in danger of extinction, making the area a poor choice for further development.

todd bray said...

Has anyone here advocating for living in denser areas ever lived in an apartment building in an area like Manhattan, Europe or Asia? Doubtful.

The punch line of course is that the private developers that would profit from these projects live in sprawling estates in areas like Woodside, Ross and any number of western states with big open ranches.

So cramming everyone into smaller spaces for profit while enjoying the great expanses of private estates and ranches isn't a good deal for anyone except for the private developers and their paid mouthpieces like Glaeser.

Development is a political process. Nothing more nothing less. If you have the political muscle one way or the other you get your way.

Scotty said...

I think you miss the point, which wasn't to encourage less farming, but to encourage farming in places that aren't deserts.

Steve Sinai said...

So Todd, you think forcing people to live out in the suburbs and commute to work is "green?" Or that a house in suburban, sweltering Houston, where there's basically no public transit, is "greener" than one in the Bay Area?

Glaeser doesn't insist that everyone live in a downtown high-rise. He knows too many people wouldn't go for that lifestyle, and he lives in suburban Boston, himself. But people have to live somewhere, and I'm pretty sure he would advocate building homes in Pacifica rather than in Petaluma or Livermore, since it takes less energy to cool and heat a building here, and it's likely going to take less energy to get to work.

Some of the people who have been run through the wringer trying to build in Pacifica are locals like Tait Cowan and the Houmams. It's a stretch to suggest they're stinking-rich developers living in Woodside or Ross. Blocking development because you're jealous of developers really doesn't do anything to solve environmental issues.

Where you build has environmental consequences. It's not purely a political process, as you claim.

Scotty said...

Okay, I disagree 100%, but let's stipulate that developers want to make profits, which is evil. Apart from throwing dirt on developers, is that your only argument in favor of suburban sprawl? That you "want it"? That selfish and unrealistic attitude is why NIMBYs come across as spoiled children to me.

Steve Sinai said...

We need to find a commenting system that lets people specify who they're replying to.

todd bray said...


todd bray said...

Ahem... excuse me... HEHEHEHEHEHEH!!!!

Anonymous said...

There are so many things wrong with this whole line of argument that I don't know where to begin. For starters, it's all in generalities, never specifics. People don't oppose development in general, they oppose specific developments for specific reasons, usually because the development is way too massive (overdevelopment) or it's in an environmentally-sensitive area. Often, both are true. But once you start making generalized statements about "environmentalists" as if they're all one homogeneous group and saying generalized things about them such as they justify blocking local development by invoking global warming, then it's equally legitimate to make generalizations about all developers and all development. If you can't make your case by referring to specific examples, then you can't make your case.

Nobody opposed development in the quarry because of global warming. The voters did not approve 355 houses. The developer could build an all-commercial project without a vote. He could have proposed a mixed-use project with a much smaller number of housing units. The voters probably would have approved that. You can't blame the failure of the quarry vote on environmentalists and NIMBYs. The developer was responsible for proposing a project that was too dense with housing for the voters to approve it.

Steve Sinai said...

"Nobody opposed development in the quarry because of global warming."

While I don't know how much of a part it played in peoples' votes, global warming was often brought up as a reason to oppose development in the quarry. Summer Rhodes (sp?) was obsessed with it.

"People don't oppose development in general, they oppose specific developments for specific reasons, usually because the development is way too massive (overdevelopment) or it's in an environmentally-sensitive area. Often, both are true."

I hear this a lot, but it's funny how every development project in Pacifica somehow turns out to be too massive or environmentally damaging.

And the original story wasn't specifically about the quarry.

Anonymous said...

"it's funny how every development project in Pacifica somehow turns out to be too massive or environmentally damaging." I didn't say that, you did.

"And the original story wasn't specifically about the quarry." The quarry was given as a specific example, something that's lacking in the original story.

todd bray said...

Lets not forget that Measure E and L were not votes for or against a project of any kind. Both measures were simple to satisfy the zoning of the quarry which is C3X. Neither the Dallas nor Florida based development firms had projects. The FEIR for Trammell Crow was a program EIR not a project EIR. And we all know the Florida based developer had no plan but rather an ad.

So regardless of species, global warming, high density or mixed use there hasn't been a plan submitted to the city for the quarry because it is illegal to do so before the State Mining and Geology Board required reclamation to the bowl of the quarry is completed. And that require a Coastal Development Permit all is own.

Steve Sinai said...

Get real Todd. Technically the votes may have been about zoning in the quarry, but people voted based on whether they wanted the proposed projects built there.

What you're doing is giving tangible examples of the anti-growth policies that Glaeser was talking about, and that ultimately do more harm than good.

Anonymous said...

funny how the people who capped on Peebles for having "no plan" have yet to demonstrate a "sustainable" plan for Pacifica. Aside from more and more and more taxes.

Scotty said...

Those people should be required to turn in their environmental merit badges for rejecting the kind of dense mixed-use plan that would cut down on emissions and could actually sustain mass transit.

Markus said...

Title of this post brings to mind an old quote, "The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions".

I may be wrong on this, but my gut feeling is that a fairly large percentage of the population in areas like Woodside or Ross is environmentalists. It may be that they are actually "stinking rich developers", wanting to give the appearance of being environmentalists. Or maybe they are just NIMBYs. Think I'll go with the latter.

I think one of the best ways to help the environment is for each community to provide its residents with local jobs, goods and services. This is obviously lacking in Pacifica. A meager 12% of Pacifica's work force has local jobs. The city is the largest employer and city payroll is the biggest city expense. Aint gonna work! We need more balance between our economy and our environment.

Anonymous said...

Yeah. Let's force Target and Wal-Mart and Costco and Google and Yahoo and Facebook to locate in Pacifica. And Macy's. And Sears. And Penney's. And K-Mart. And an outlet mall. Oh, and that Larry Ellison guy too.

How about this? You can't build one more house in Pacifica until you create at least 10 more local jobs. That oughta do it.

Anonymous said...

That last commenter must have burst a blood vessel in their brain.

todd bray said...

Steve says, "Get real Todd. Technically the votes may have been about zoning in the quarry, but people voted based on whether they wanted the proposed projects built there. What you're doing is giving tangible examples of the anti-growth policies that Glaeser was talking about, and that ultimately do more harm than good."

WTH are you talking about Steve? Measures E and L had no projects attached to them what so ever. They were simply about satisfying the requirement for housing in the quarry, nothing more.

Anonymous said...

Mike Vasey will be receiving the Open Space Hero Award in council chambers tomorrow. His work on derailing development of the quarry finally paid off.

Steve Sinai said...

You don't remember talk about a hotel or shops or land for a civic center in the quarry, Todd?

Steve Sinai said...

Here was the full text of Measure L, in order to refresh memories:


To the Honorable City Clerk for the City of Pacifica:

We, the undersigned, registered and qualified voters of the City of Pacifica hereby propose an initiative measure as follows. We petition you to submit this initiative measure to the City Council of Pacifica for submission of the measure to the voters of the City of Pacifica at the next general election on November 7, 2006, or if the initiative does not qualify by the required date, a future special election as provided by law.


Whereas the parcel of land, A.P. #018-150-100, 018-150-120, and 018-150-150, commonly known as the Rockaway Quarry, is currently zoned under a C-3x designation, authorized for up to 2.1 million square feet of commerical development and could be developed without any residential component pursuant to current City of Pacifica Codes;

Whereas Ordinance No, 391-C.S., passed and approved by the voters of the City of Pacifica at the General Municipal Election held on November 8, 1983, requires a vote of the people to approve any residential development on the parcel;

Whereas the purpose of this initiative measure is to fully comply with Ordinance No. 391-C.S. in regard to the authorization of residential development, as well as require that any development of the Rockaway Quarry that includes a residential component also provides additional benefits for the residents and City of Pacifica to be detailed in a development agreement evidencing a commitment from the developer.


In accordance with Ordinance No. 391-C.S. the City Council is authorized to approve a mixed use residential and commerical development on the parcel known as the Rockaway Quarry, so long as the development plan complies with all land use regulations in effect at the time and is subject to complete environmental review and certification, preserves and protects at least 45% of the land as publicly accessible open space, preserves public access to privately owned open space, includes a luxury hotel of up to 350 rooms and restaurant, retail and commerical space, and consists of up to 355 residential units of varying types and includes a commitment from the developer that all of the elements of the development will be built and completed, conditioned on the receipt of all applicable regulatory approvals.


If any provision of this intitiative of the application thereof to any person or circumstance is held invald, that invalidity shall not affect other provisions or applications of this initiative that can be given effect without the invalid provision or application, and to this end the provisions of this initiative are severable.

Application of Initiative

The provisions of this initiative do not address, are not intended to, and shall not be applied to conflict in any way with state or federal law, or local administrative actions required by state or federal law.

Anonymous said...

Talk, yes. Plan, no.

todd bray said...

Steve, neither ballot measure was associated with a proposal. TC's program EIR established theoretical maximums, something that defines what a proposal could be, not the proposal itself because it would be illegal to apply for a building permit for the quarry until the SMGB sign off on the reclamation of the quarry bowl.

The Florida developer was simply advertising what he would build if his ballot measure passed. Your sentence above concerning hotels, shops and civic center land use would not require a public vote but before a permit application can be submitted for such a project the reclamation of the quarry bowl would still need to be completed, and even though the city and the SMGB have approved the reclamation program it still requires a Coastal Development Permit from the Coastal Commission.

So as far as talk about hotels and what not Measure E and L were not about any specific project. The two ballot measures were about satisfying the zoning requirement for housing, nothing more.

In the end voting to allow housing doesn't do anything to shift the property out of the Coastal Zone nor does it satisfy the SMGB reclamation requirement. A positive vote for housing merely removes the requirement that there be a public vote for housing. That is all that is gained from a positive vote. No permits, no approvals, nothing, just that housing can be proposed without further public votes.

I should charge you tuition fees, or make you a CD you can listen to in your sleep so all this basic land use stuff finally sinks in.

Anonymous said...

Too many houses for sale in Pacifica and empty stores. Why?

Steve Sinai said...

Todd, I can understand why Ireland is in so much trouble when I see the product of their education system.

Anonymous said...

"Unless there is a major jobs recovery, the situation in California is going to continue to degenerate. The truth is that the state of California needs millions and millions of new jobs just to get back to "normal". For example, near the end of last year it was reported that 24.3 percent of the residents of El Centro, California were unemployed. Not only that, as of the end of last year the number of people unemployed in the state of California was approximately equivalent to the entire populations of Nevada, New Hampshire and Vermont combined."

"Twenty-two Democratic senators, including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, wrote Obama a letter on April 13 asking him to exercise "prosecutorial discretion" to defer the deportation of undocumented students."

"Rachel Ochoa, 66, of San Jose was arrested at her office in San Jose in November and eventually pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully producing an identification document — Social Security cards — as part of a plea agreement, according to the U.S. Department of Justice..."

We don't need anymore houses, we need jobs. I will not support the building of housing developments until I see business coming back to California. Those who choose to be blind of the problems in California will end up being ignored. We need to vote out the people who have been in elected seats for far too long and bring in small government, pro-business, anti-illegal immigration amnesty minded people. When our own children can not get into college due to cost , but are paying for an illegal immigrant to go for free, plus health, housing, food. Some one does not want California to succeed. We are screwing our children and their future. Fools!

Kathy Meeh said...

"In the end voting to allow housing doesn't do anything to shift the property out of the Coastal Zone nor does it satisfy the SMGB reclamation requirement. A positive vote for housing merely removes the requirement that there be a public vote for housing. That is all that is gained from a positive vote. No permits, no approvals, nothing, just that housing can be proposed without further public votes."

Todd (8:27am), bottom line: which comes first "the chicken or the egg" (the reasoning basis of all our educations). The Measure L plan was to build a village in the quarry, which includes a retail, commercial and residential component.

As Steve has pointed out (8:12am), the ballot Measure (Measure L) was an essential part of the regulation requirement.

I don't know why you want to talk about "the plan" when the only "plan" which may be acceptable to some of you is "no plan" whatsoever. Thus, hastening the economic failure of this city, and breaching the financed "best practice" ecology.

Years ago when I visited Ireland, Ireland prided their education system, but unemployment was 17% with a lot of people on the dole. The "plan" was to grow-up and leave the country.

Anonymous said...

Well the plan for California is going to be grow up and leave it so you can get a job, an education, decent life. Haha, looks like immigration is not only a problem it's going to become the solution. All this back and forth on the quarry. Who's going to buy all these houses you want to build? In a smelly location. In a crumbling town. You? Anybody you know? What a joke.

Kathy Meeh said...

Hate to spoil your good time, but the economy is improving slowly (in spite of high gas prices; in spite of obstruction in congress.

Current employment statistics are available Anon (9:59am), but you seem to avoiding these as you dwell in your world of darkness. Here's a slightly out-of-date article from San Mateo Daily Journal quoting the CA Employment (2/11) as 12.2%. Bay area: San Mateo county 8.3%, Marin 7.8%, San Francisco 9.1%. These percentages have improved slightly since.

Anon (9:59am), your premise that building is something you do not support is illogical. Building brings jobs (which you do support), and people live in housing so they spend money, which in turn improves the economy (which you do support).

Aside from that, I find your scapegoating of illegal immigrants repugnant. And, seriously Anon 1130am, do leave California.

Anonymous said...

Seriously get a clue. Read for content and stop living in denial/Pacifica.

Kathy Meeh said...

Please translate, what are you referring to Anon (400)? If you are the Anon who dwells in a dark cave, forget it, this country recovers from recessions.

Anonymous said...

That's rich, Meeh asking someone to translate.
Please don't.

Kathy Meeh said...

"Seriously get a clue. Read for content and stop living in denial/Pacifica."

Seriously, Anon 417, considering the mixed-dialog, what you said is ambiguous. I'm just asking, what did you say?