Public Comment

Berkeley’s Anti-Environmentalist Movement

By Charles Siegel
Thursday July 10, 2008 - 09:47:00 AM

The current anti-BRT initiative highlights the split in Berkeley politics between environmentalists who support better public transportation and more walkable neighborhoods and anti-environmentalists who oppose these things.  

On a national level, there is general consensus among environmental groups in favor of smart growth. We know that people drive less if they live in neighborhoods with services and public transit within walking distance of their homes, and that more people will use public transportation if there is faster and more reliable service. Because transportation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and because gasoline is becoming increasingly scarce, environmentalists want to reduce auto-dependency by building public transportation infrastructure and building walkable neighborhoods around the transit stops. 

On a national level, the only groups opposing these environmental policies are right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. But in Berkley, we have a local anti-environment movement that is more effective than these entities. 

There is noisy opposition whenever there is a proposal to build pedestrian-oriented housing, whether it is new housing on transit corridors or new housing in downtown whose residents will be able to walk almost everywhere, such as the housing associated with the Brower Center. The anti-BRT initiative shows us that there is equally noisy opposition to proposals for better public transportation—and it is led by the same people who led the opposition to the Brower Center.  

All these projects attract opponents from the immediate neighborhood who have not thought much about planning issues but who feel threatened by development near them. Neighborhood opponents always complain about parking problems and traffic congestion. They do not realize that they are demanding that we should make it easier to drive rather than making it easier to walk or use public transportation, and they don’t think about the impact that their way of life has on the global environment. 

But there is also a hard core of people who work on these issues throughout the city. They come up with a long list of excuses for opposing each project, but when you see the same people leading the opposition to one thing after another, it becomes clear that they are simply against everything. 

These hard-core anti-environmentalists seem to believe that they are fighting to protect Berkeley’s character against growth. They don’t realize that Berkeley’s early character as a walkable streetcar suburb was disrupted by auto-oriented development. Transit corridors were filled with drive-in uses, and they ended up being more like strip malls than like walkable Main Streets. Even in downtown, there were surface parking lots, tire stores, a strip mall, a car wash, and other drive-in uses that made it less pleasant to walk. 

The anti-environmentalists’ fears are stoked by extreme smart-growth advocates who want to fill downtown with high-rises - thinking abstractly about how many more people we can fit into downtown, but not thinking concretely about how to design human-scale neighborhoods that most people would find attractive. Naturally, they provoke opposition. 

But many smart growth advocates support traditional neighborhood design, rather than high-rises. We want to give Berkeley an old-fashioned pedestrian-friendly feel by filling in gaps in the urban fabric created by surface parking lots and drive-in uses. 

In downtown, we would like to see something like a traditional European city with a continuous streetscape of buildings up to five or six stories tall, uninterrupted by auto-oriented uses—something like Copenhagen and other European cities that have not been marred by high-rises. Replacing a surface parking lot with the Brower Center is a step in this direction. 

On transit corridors, we would like to see walkable Main Streets with housing above shopping, rather than strip malls. Most of the infill projects proposed for our transit corridors are steps in this direction. 

To make it all possible, we would like to see better public transportation, which would generate more walkable development at the transit stops. Bus Rapid Transit is a step in this direction. 

The threat of global warming should make Berkeley’s anti-environmentalists take a long look at themselves. Imagine that, 20 or 30 years from now, your grandchildren ask you: “Did you do anything about global warming at the beginning of the century, when everyone first realized how great a threat it was?” 

Do you want to answer them by saying; “I was very active politically early in the century. I tried to stop affordable housing in downtown, where residents could walk everywhere, and I circulated a petition to stop better public transportation"? 

Look at yourself in historical perspective, and you will see that it is time to stop opposing one thing after another and to start supporting positive change that makes Berkeley more livable and more sustainable. 


Charles Siegel is author of The Politics of Simple Living.