The administration is in denial. The “dumb” growth advocates are into defeatism: “... nothing we do in Berkeley’s land use will have any noticeable impact on climate change.” (Sharon Hudson, Daily Planet, Aug. 8). It is an easy type of excuse that is too sweeping in its scope. Why protest the war, when nothing you personally can do will stop it? Why not cheat on your taxes? Lots of people do it and your taxes are probably insignificant in the total budget.
On the global stage, the effects of lifestyle changes of any one person, or city, are indeed insignificant. However, there are some changes which can be significant if done by enough people (or cities). It is the willful failure to act in this type of situation, in the absence of mitigating reasons, which gives Nimbyism its definition as a selfish, and potentially harmful, shirking of responsibility.
Is Berkeley a special case? Although Ms. Hudson writes extensively on the problems growth can cause, she has not shown, nor attempted to show, that Berkeley is in any way special with regards to these problems, or any less fit to deal with them. Other cities have trees they want to keep, and problems with traffic and noise. There is a sign in Escalon (population 7,000) in the Central Valley that asks whether Escalon really needs 459 (I think that is the number I saw) new houses. Expansion in such areas eliminates part of their attraction in the first place. In Tucson I once overheard a lady complain that when she had moved into her new development a few years ago she had the last house on the block, but now a new development had been put in and now she no longer had immediate access to the desert. She seemed to have no sense of the irony implicit in her complaint. Yes, there are some older cities in Pennsylvania and other states that have lost population and would probably be better off gaining some of it back, but most cities in California are not in this situation.
Would “smart” growth have an insignificant effect even if was widespread? Ms. Hudson does not even discuss why environmentalists think it has any effect. A main focus of “smart” growth is higher density and centralized growth. This slows down habitat loss, reduces water demand, and reduces energy demand. The reason for the first effects are obvious, while the last effect is mainly due to lower space heating and cooling use in multi-family residences (apartments) due to their lower surface to volume ratios, and less use of vehicular travel because destinations are closer together, and alternative options (transit, bike and walking) are more feasible.
San Francisco data from 1990-1995 shows that in areas at the fifth percentile in density (three households/acre) personal vehicle use per capita (corrected for differences in income) was 40 percent higher than for areas at 95th percentile (10.5 households/acre). This is not a dramatic effect, but it is not insignificant either. Furthermore, there was no significant pressure in the 1990s to reduce vehicular traffic. In dense center city areas your chances of being able to car pool, ride transit, or even walk or bike, are much better than if you live in an outlying suburb or a sprawling city such as Houston or Los Angeles. It is therefore reasonable to expect that the potential density effect is much larger than the current effect. This holds for growth, as well existing households.
Reducing emissions while our population is still growing is already a very difficult task, and “dumb” growth will make it even harder. Environmentalists have good reason to feel that promoting growth in the central valley, instead of the central cities, is irresponsible and self-centered. Nimbyism is not something to be proud of. But this does not mean one has to abandon all restraints on what goes into one’s back yard. “Smart” growth means a hierarchy of densities: dense urban centers, a buffer of medium rise buildings, and then less dense residential areas with yards. Berkeley does not have a dense downtown. If the building height to street width ratio was as high in Berkeley as it is in downtown San Francisco, the buildings on Shattuck near Center would be 150 stories high, and other downtown areas would have 30 to 50 story buildings. Berkeley is not the central city in the Bay Area, but the University is a major center. Twenty stories and perhaps more would seem to be reasonable given these circumstances.
Berkeley’s current low limits (five stories plus limited bonus stories for low income housing) are counter-productive even for Nimbys. If developers can’t meet demand in the central core, then they try to expand into the lower density surrounding areas. If we block that, then we run the risk that the university will step in and build it anyway, and will remove tax dollars as an added insult to the injury. Higher core densities provide a safety valve for population growth in the city that can help preserve the residential neighborhoods.
Ms. Hudson prints such a dire picture of life in high density areas that it is a wonder that anyone would voluntarily live in a big city. Planning for Berkeley’s future is serious task with long-term consequences. It deserves better than this type of commentary.
Robert Clear is a Berkeley resident.
Opinions expressed in Daily Planet commentary and letters to the editor are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Daily Planet or its staff.