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New: Dense urbanism: Should it be Berkeley's future? (Part 1 of 2)

Tim Hansen
Saturday March 28, 2015 - 10:52:00 PM

We live in interesting times. The movement in city building towards very dense urbanism is beginning to fracture. Berkeley is part of this movement with the dissonance of change being played out in our city. The movement towards dense urbanism has been going on for a long time, mainly driven by industrialization and efficiencies in agriculture. Today many people embrace the movement out of a reaction to concerns about peak oil. In the mid 1950s the idea emerged that oil production would continue to increase for a while and then, as the fields began to dry up, production would begin to decrease. If one graphed the production by year, that point in time where production begins to drop is called peak oil. This is of great concern. With falling production oil prices would rise, and with it food prices, housing costs, transportation, and everything else. This could give rise to social unrest, destabilized governments, and possibly even wars. The future would be bleak. 

For many, the fix seemed obvious. We would cut back on our use of oil. Since cars use a lot of oil we would stop driving and take public transportation. Cars can go almost anywhere, public transportation serves many fewer locations. To overcome this very dense transit centers were promoted. It wouldn’t matter that public transportation served fewer places because there would be fewer places to go; the denser the transit centers were the more efficient they would be. Cars were viewed as a luxury we no longer could afford and parking lots were considered opportunity sites for large apartment complexes. New York City was pointed to as utopia because its per capita energy use is low compared to current suburban developments. Our government responded by passing codes and regulation promoting dense building. An industry grew up around promoting and building the dense centers and with them lobbyists, quasi-governmental agencies, contractors, consultants and politicians, all marching to the drum of more and more dense urbanism. The movement took on an almost religious zeal with the nonbelievers branded NIMBYs. For the sake of the future, we had to make the sacrifice whether one wanted to or not for the alternative they thought was coming was not acceptable. 

With global warming the stakes were greatly increased. Energy was equated with carbon production, which was equated with climate change. Those promoting the dense development would save the world by building even denser centers to reduce energy use, thereby limiting climate change. They would do it here, in Berkeley. The end was so important that it justified any means. Our city officials began to stack the deck in favor of very dense development. The process became corrupt because the end—dense city development—became all-important to them. 

But the world isn’t going the way many people thought it would. New questions are being asked and a new view of what our future would be is emerging. Today it is not hard to imagine a world where oil plays a significantly less role in our lives, yet the auto is still the dominant mode of transportation. A world where our homes are made of materials that store carbon and are powered by solar energy, transportation is revolutionized by self driving electric automobiles, and virtual business meetings are as effective as in-person meetings. A world where one’s garden becomes a carbon sink and supplies the table with food. A world where the carbon footprint of dense center living is greater than a more dispersed model of living, and very dense urban centers are seen as the problem and not the solution for climate change. 

Where did the dense urbanists go wrong? They simply didn’t take into account human nature—that when problems present themselves, people work to solve them. The green energy revolution that is sweeping over us has implications for our future and how we should live that weren’t imagined decades ago. The dense urbanists have a lot invested in their worldview. They view themselves as the good guys saving the world. It is unlikely they will recognize the implications of the green energy revolution and begin to see themselves as part of the problem instead of the solution. But the tipping point could be just around the corner. 

Those holding the more dispersed model for cities view the dense urbanists as people just in it for the money using green jargon for deceptive marketing. They see the push to get rid of autos as naive and support new housing with enough area to be green, housing that is contextual, doesn’t sacrifice light and air, preserves vistas, and creates wonderful places to live that honors the past while looking forward to the future. They reject New York City as a model for development pointing out that times have changed. Also, studies show the people of New York City are some of the unhappiest of any US city. Why would one model oneself after a place where people aren’t happy if there was no reason to? For the dense urbanists, happiness is not a recognized metric. 

Those opposed to the dense urbanists view traffic congestion as a failure in city planning and a waste of people’s time and resources. The dense urbanists view congestion as sign of success foretelling the abandonment of autos for public transportation with the inconvenience simply being the cost of change. Affordable housing is viewed as something needing public support. The dense urbanists believe that if we build high-rise luxury condos the extra housing will result in a trickle down creating more affordable units. Others reject trickle down believing it is more complex, taking into account jobs, wages and supply. They believe that buildings should be built green, while the dense urbanists believe that if the green building standards are in the way of a large development, the standards should be discarded. 

Those who share the dispersed building view envision a kind of garden city, bits and pieces of which still exist in Berkeley but are vanishing fast under the hand of the dense urbanists. They look at what we lost and see a city with very serious problems. It is time to step back and decide where we as a city are going. We have lost our warm water pool, Willard pool, the Fine Arts Cinema and Iceland—all of which could have been made green—and are on the road to losing important vistas, more cinemas and the post office. We are getting denser yet losing the amenities that support the density and makes our city wonderful. This is a recipe for serious social problems. Our roads are congested and in disrepair, BART is standing room only when most people need it. We have lost affordable housing, diversity and are gentrifying. We have failed to put solar on our public buildings, to support green energy by joining Community Choice Aggregation, and we do not require meaningful green building standards. We have failed to build the affordable housing we need. Our city officials talk—but that is about it. 

It is time to rethink Berkeley. It is time for a change. The dense urbanists are pushing two high-rise projects for the downtown. It is time to examine these projects and see if they are in the interests of anyone. This will be part 2.