By Dan Goodman
Politicians give me the creeps. Democrats and Republicans alike. The mentality required to make hundreds of phone calls a day and deliver speeches boasting one’s leadership skills is questionable at best. That being said, most people agree that pollution is generally a bad thing.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been gaining notoriety for her outspoken criticisms of capitalism and her calls to action regarding the impending doom caused by carbon emissions. The importance of reducing our carbon footprint has been repeatedly stressed by politicians and celebrities alike in recent years, but most of them fail to address how deeply this fossil fuel dependency is ingrained in our physical environment.
It’s easy to get people fired up about a cause as noble as saving the planet. It’s a lot harder to get them to change their behavior in order to do so. “Driving cars contributes to climate change? How else am I supposed to get to work?” The truth is many Americans, regardless of their political opinions, would use less fossil fuels in their daily lives if circumstances allowed for it. The key here is convenience.
Zoning regulations have prevented walkable neighborhoods from being built all across the United States, and in many other parts of the world. Politicians lecture people about driving too much while simultaneously enforcing building regulations which ensure that cars rule the road. Parking minimums have enforced this status quo all over the place where for every retail space or restaurant there is an equal amount of surface area reserved for temporary car storage. Streets are required to be specific widths with new lanes of traffic being added constantly. It’s obvious that every design choice that caters to the convenience of the automobile, discourages other means of transportation. Every new lane constructed brings a new fleet of drivers looking to take advantage of the extra driving room.
People love convenience. We’ll consistently choose it over our own privacy and we’ll choose it over the health of our natural environment. Although our cities have made it inconvenient to live without a car, ask anyone from Los Angeles or Chicago how convenient it is to drive there and you’ll likely see how inconvenient too many cars on the road can be.
There’s the sales pitch. If we stop building everything so far away from each other we can stop burning all that gasoline to get there. Our built environment greatly affects our behavior, guiding our movement and determining our relationships with our neighbors. If politicians want people to use less fossil fuels, all they have to do is create the right incentives.
Projects like the ones pictured above are the key to this transition to a less car dependent society. City governments can offer incentives for developers to retrofit existing areas into denser urban environments. Instead of zoning regulations that strictly segregate residential and commercial areas, government officials could offer tax incentives to encourage denser, mixed use development. Instead of enforcing parking minimums, encourage developers to designate less land for parking. If the goal is really to decrease carbon emissions, making an area less convenient to drive in is a no brainer.
People don’t need to be told not to drive, they need to be shown. They need to see a physical environment that allows for daily errands to be run on foot. With walkability becoming an increasingly important factor for young people choosing where to live, businesses don’t need to be forced into accommodating them. Dense downtowns consistently see higher demand for housing, a fact which real estate developers can clearly take advantage of by replicating assets these areas have.
Consider the house pictured above. A home like this, which takes up a fraction of the lot it’s built on leaves a lot of money on the table. This building practice continues due to zoning restrictions in residential neighborhoods. Now imagine a developer with the same amount of land was given the freedom to use every inch of the lot. Suddenly the profit from the lease or sale of a single family home pales in comparison to that of a multi use development.
Neighborhood organizations can still have the ability to prevent unwanted development to some extent. It’s understandable that the residents of a quiet suburban neighborhood might object to a strip club opening up across the street. Such concerns could be handled within the community, allowing residents to voice their concerns without letting them block new construction entirely by appealing to arbitrary zoning laws building codes.
Even the NIMBYest of NIMBYs will likely appreciate the convenience of a new grocery store down the block. As neighborhoods are allowed to develop organically, free from the restraints of zoning, people will grow accustomed to walking down the block to pick up a gallon of milk instead of driving five miles. In order to get people out of their cars, politicians need to give them a viable alternative. The greenest thing we can do is to make more efficient use of land.