Friday, May 15, 2015

Smart Growth: a debate among environmentalists.

An informative online discussion took place recently in a Green Cambridge forum, and I've decided to post it on my blog. Green Cambridge, based here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has the mission of creating a sustainable city and protecting the environment for all.

Board president Quinton Zondervan had asked for input as he prepared for a local cable TV show on development issues in Cambridge. He would be paired off against two members of A Better Cambridge, a group calling for higher density development near transit nodes.  I decided to stir the pot a little by making a case for smart growth, a sentiment that I suspected might not have a lot of fellow travelers in the group. As I defined it, smart growth is "encouraging residential and commercial development to occur near established transit lines, especially near stations along the lines with the highest capacity to move people. " As it turns out, I am on the boards of both Green Cambridge and A Better Cambridge.

The reason this discussion makes it to my blog is that many important issues in our current urban environmental discussion are raised: development, transportation, sea-level rise, equity, jobs, housing, regional and local planning, economic history, public investment, the IPCC, and many others are talked about. Hearing these issues expressed articulately by people committed to trying to solve them will help us all as we assess priorities and develop strategies to the complicated challenges ahead.

The conversation has a timely local relevance in the ongoing Cambridge debates because a proposed zoning change to allow a large residential development in Central Square will be considered at Monday's City Council meeting.

Here's what ensued. The participants are Green Cambridge members John Pitkin, Rosalie Anders, board president Quinton Zondervan, and myself.  I've made no edits to any words except for line spacings.


Sam Seidel:
I'm a big supporter of the concept of smart growth as it's commonly understood -- encouraging residential and commercial development to occur near established transit lines, especially near stations along the lines with the highest capacity to move people.

John Pitkin:
This show is about planning, which is inherently collective if it is done by government.
Like the Innovation District, the Twining/Normandy project is at best Not Very Smart Growth. I happened to attend a very interesting session on Rising Tides at last week's Sustainability unConference, which was led BTW by a Cambridge architect. As an icebreaker he asked the dozen attendees to state the elevation of their home above sea level. That is the first question to ask about the Twining/Normandy project. It's probably higher than the Innovation District but not by much. 12 feet or so?
It is foolish as a matter of policy to encourage major developments in such low-lying locations. The sooner we start to plan for substantial sea level rise, not as a risk but as a near-certainty that could come as soon as within a few decades, the smarter and better our plans will be. Sea level is rising more rapidly on our coast than almost anywhere else, the rate of rise is increasing, and there is evidence from past climatic changes that much more rapid rise is possible.
This doesn't mean that we should give up on Cambridge or Boston, just that they should no longer be the focus of regional growth. We could instead select (and plan) a new metropolitan center at a higher elevation that has a chance of being habitable in 300 years and quickly build a high-speed, resilient, sustainable transit connection between there and Cambridge and Boston. This would have the huge added benefit of increasing the supply of affordable net-zero housing quickly if it is well planned.
It might even provide a sorely needed rationale for hosting the 2024 Olympics in Boston if it were used to jump-start a sustainable New Boston. Sorry Twining/Normandy, the era of smart growth in Cambridge is over, and we need to plan accordingly. My two cents, but I'd be happy to charge more if you like this idea.

Quinton Zondervan:
Thanks John, my thoughts exactly. We need to point this funnel of money away from Cambridge instead of seeing it as an opportunity for more smart growth. There's nothing smart about it :-( I recently had a wonderful view of the airport from one of the tall buildings in the financial district. It's scary to realize how close we are to the water :-( We need to start retreating from the coast, not building more this close to the water! 
Rosalie Anders:
John, that is a very interesting approach.   I wish we were doing real regional planning!   Thoughtful planning that wasn't affected by all the competition for funds among municipalities.    Maybe it's about Worcester!

I guess I would only ask, if Cambridge shouldn't get the density, then which communities - specifically - in the Boston metro area  should? Are we going to target richer communities like Concord and Acton? Or should we aim at poorer communities like Chelsea and Everett? And more importantly, where are the jobs being created in the region and where are we building housing?
One of the great “sins” of the Baby Boom generation (and Gen-Xers to a lesser degree) was fueling (and funding) a system that separated jobs from housing geographically — and then trying to re-connect them with roadways and cars.
Today's good news is that Millennials are starting to reverse that trend. They are choosing cities and they are choosing not to own automobiles. They want to live close to work and to shopping and to other people.  They are not afraid of density. They seek it. It’s hip, cool and it’s an environmental improvement — because it represents a repudiation of auto-centric culture their parents left for them.  
I agree with the Millennials. Cities are hip.  Close is cool. And I applaud this new generation for their radical reinterpretation of an old worn-out paradigm, and I think they are to be encouraged — both in policy and in practice.
We don’t have to look far for examples. Somerville is doing both — at the Assembly Square Mall.  There we see a new Orange line station, the first new T station since 1987 (which was the Ronald Reagan presidency, for the history buffs). It cost us all $29 million to build. Literally feet away, there is new 14-story construction going up. That strikes me as an efficient use of collective resources — land, dollars, electricity, to name a few.  It will take less carbon per capita to build this housing, and it will take less carbon to heat and cool it.  It will take less carbon to get these new residents to and from their jobs, and (we hope) to and from their stores.
Turn around 180 degrees from the new T station, and you see the old vision — a sea of a parking lot surrounded by low, single-story development.
Given how hard it is to accomplish anything these days — 26 years for one new station on the Orange Line; 25 years of Green Line Extension talks with nothing yet built; 10 years of Cambridge plastic bag ban discussions with finally implementation, I think our discussions should balance what we’d like to see with what we think we’re likely to see. Our desire for an ideal should be tempered by our understanding of what we think is real.  I say this only because I’d like to see during my lifetime some accomplishments that actually reduce our carbon output. 

Building more housing in Cambridge is not going to reduce our carbon output. It might increase it less than if we built that housing unit somewhere else but that's not the same thing as reducing our carbon output :-) There are many communities within transit reach of Boston/Cambridge already. And the question is not density in this community vs that community, the question is how much density can we tolerate in Cambridge/Boston and does it really make sense to build primarily at the edge of a rising ocean?
I hope everybody read the Logan airport piece in the globe this morning? That's what we are up against: rising seas and ill prepared infrastructure. Does it really make sense to pile more people on top of that mess? Oh, and by the way, who's going to drown the most? The rich who can afford to fly or the poor who are stuck in those "affordable" units?
Fundamentally we need to change this conversation from an argument about increasing affordable units one building at a time while increase housing costs for everyone to a discussion of how we are going to continue to live on this planet without melting it. More density in Cambridge/Boston is not a solution to that problem :-( It's not smart growth, it's insanity. Now would you like to know how I really feel? :-) Don't worry, I was much less ornery on TV; my son was there to keep me straight :-)

I appreciate your vigor too.  And I'm sure you were great on CCTV. But I'm still curious, which communities specifically are going to get the new residents, and how are those people going to get to and from their jobs, 2x a day, 300 days a year? :-) 

Thanks. I don't have answers, only more questions: What is so special about Cambridge that only we can and should provide the housing AND the jobs? How can we possibly add enough housing fast enough in already densely packed Cambridge to meet the insatiable housing demand, even if we stripped away all resistance to turning into mini-Manhattan? Boston is adding buildings galore (new third tallest building going up now) and it makes no difference. Prices go up and up and up...
Short of bulldozing neighborhoods and replacing them with high rises, how exactly would this work? Where is the conversation about investing in public transit? Cambridge has to pay for that too? How? We can no longer base our plans on what happened in the 1950s. Car ownership is declining, sea levels are rising. What are we going to do about it? Where is the plan? We just wing it and then expect better results? That's not going to work :-

My old mantra----regional planning with teeth.    Dense inner cities, which Cambridge is, and which should make car ownership and driving a last resort for residents, with protected land outside the inner core that encourages farming (and that is accessible to city people via transit).  If we protected countryside it would help us all.  And a close look at cities away from the coast, like Worcester, Holyoke, Springfield.   How can we plan for future jobs and housing there?    Maybe there is a withdrawal from the coast in the longer term, but we need then to start building elsewhere.  
Public transit requires density.  And commuter rail that brings people to jobs in the inner city often encourages sprawl and even more driving for all those non-work trips.
It's not that only Cambridge can provide jobs and housing, but Cambridge, Boston, Chelsea, Somerville, Lowell, etc.  We all need to be part of this.  (Rosalie)

Amen Rosalie, but we are being left out to hang on our own. Where's the regional planning? nonexistent. Where's the state planning? Not happening. The capitalist free riders want to do whatever they want, consequences be damned. We are just cannon fodder for their folly. It's time to stand up to that nonsense or get trampled.

If our public position is that we must begin a wholesale exodus out of low-lying areas, then we should be advocating for that. I think that’s too extreme.

Indeed; it is too early to call for an evacuation, but there is a lot of room between that and piling on more density wildly-nilly :-)

We obviously need to be looking down the road, but we also need to be looking where our next footstep is about to go. Focusing only on the fact that Cambridgeport is likely to be underwater by the end of the century will more likely produce panic and paralysis than motivating action.

It's not just Cambridgeport, and it's not just sea level rise, but anyway, you're right and I'm certainly not advocating panic. We have the vulnerability process for working through the specifics and I support it (I even asked for it) :-). This conversation is about whether and where we should build more, not about when we should start running for our lives (anyway, where would we run to?!)

Moreover, our current decision-making process for any major idea seems to require at least 25 years from initial stages to anything near completion. We should acknowledge this reality and be honest about the constraints it is likely to place on our actions.

Of course, but touché, that's not an excuse for not planning :-)

As for the amount of density that Cambridge should receive, I think about it in two parts — From a systems perspective, the capacity of the Red Line has been largely underutilized over its 100-year life span.  That had more to do with the relative laxness of the Boston-area economy than with the imposition of public tastes on our built environment. Now that economy has become hyper-charged and this century-old infrastructure project takes on a whole new meaning in this changed context. Like in other environmental issues, we ought to be aiming for maximum system efficiency within a broader set of reasonable expectations. Here’s a slightly silly example of what I’m trying to say — buying a super-high-efficiency heater is a good idea (efficiency); going entirely without heat in the winter is carbon-free, but it’s also idiotic (reasonable expectations). Given that we might define "reasonable expectations” differently, or more simply that our tastes may differ, I start to think about equity —  trying to answer the question, what is fair? Here’s where I get on that one ...

From an equity perspective, the Red Line north of the Charles River has been a huge subsidy to the city and citizens of Cambridge over the last 100 years. A public infrastructure project paid for by the people of the Commonwealth has been enjoyed by Cambridge exclusively. It took neighboring Somerville another 73 years to see its first T stop (Davis Square in 1985) while Cambridge’s three stops (Kendall, Central, Harvard) came online in 1912. Meanwhile, we added a fourth (Green Line at Lechmere) in 1922. All through the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and into the 1980s, a Cambridge resident could easily hop on the T into Boston for a job in a law firm, or at a major bank or insurance company, or in a world-renown teaching hospital. For a Somerville resident, that commute was a much more complicated project. Think about how that simple fact impacted land values, tax base, public investment, school budgets and the basic demographics of the two communities. To say that Cambridge is now confronted with an exceptional burden disregards what we enjoyed alone for much of the last century. Neighboring communities (Somerville, Malden, Medford, Watertown, Belmont, Arlington … to name a few) — some of the same communities we think should add density so that flood-displaced Cambridge residents will have a place to live — might push back when they hear us crying “foul”.

I strongly disagree with your assumptions. By what measures can we claim that the red line has exclusively benefited Cambridge residents?! That just doesn't add up. It's benefited thousands of students from all over the world, for example. And investors in Silicon Valley. And economic development in Cambridge/Boston benefits Somerville too. And reduced traffic from Cambridge benefits everyone else on the roads. Etc. There is no way that you can get away with that claim :-) Furthermore, Cambridge pays a huge chunk of money for the red line!
And even if you were right, and you're not, this is almost an argument for reparations? Even if Cambridge disproportionally benefited from the red line, that does not automatically make it wise or fair to build lots of density in Cambridge?! Government spending is inevitably imprecise; does highway spending in Mass. disproportionately benefit metro Boston? Does that mean that the next highway extension should go through Central Sq.? (yes, that reference was on purpose) :-)
This is not a sensible way forward to me. This is argument based on history when the future is staring us in the face with a big club aimed squarely at our foreheads! We need to wizen up fast. We need to plan. It's the only sensible thing to do when faced with complexity.
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

I think I agree with all your points about evacuation.
But if your long-term position is that we need to move thousands of people out of low-lying regions over the next 75-100 years(?) and it takes us 25 years to accomplish anything, well … aren’t you advocating for doing the planning for mass evacuation? My point is … has anybody told Lexington that we’re going to want them to house some of our displaced residents? They might like some time to do some planning too.

My position is that it is premature to conclude that we need to move anybody anywhere. That's what adaptation planning is for. The plan may very well be to build dikes and levies to protect low level areas and let people decide if they want to keep living here and pay escalating insurance premiums or not. I don't know. The point is that the plan also needs to assess whether or not it makes any sense, given what we know now, to add thousands more residents to these same low-lying areas. The answer may very well be yes, but I want to see a plan that concludes that and stipulates how those people will be protected in addition to the people already here and why that is economically rational and socially just.
And where is this 25 years coming from? It won't take us 25 years to make a plan; maybe 2 or 3. Or maybe you're referring to execution of the plan ala net zero, but that's ok, that's what long-term planning is all about. We're not talking about needing to move thousands of people next year; that is an unwarranted conclusion given the data at hand and an unlikely outcome therefore of e.g. the adaptation planning process about to commence.
And yes, this is not just a Cambridge problem which is why we need regional planning and we need it desperately and it's not happening fast enough. We're like the ant nest when you poke it with a stick, all running around in different directions. If we keep that up we're going to get killed.

As for the Red Line, I would only say this … in my mind, it is absolutely not a mistake that Cambridge got an underground heavy rail system during the initial system buildout in 1912, and Somerville had to wait 75 years to be included in that picture.  I am also certain that if you were a Tufts student in 1954, you felt like you were on a rural campus, and the trek to Boston was a much bigger proposition than say, if you were a Harvard student.

Maybe, but what does that have to do with the future? It's also true that in 1992 I moved to Somerville to study at MIT in Cambridge. I could do that because Porter Square T Station. So Somerville had the benefit of my rent payments (and thousands of other students who came here under similar circumstance) :-) The point is that this is all water under the bridge now. The tides are rising; we don't have the luxury to settle scores. We need to do what makes the most sense for the most people going forward.

The different trajectories of Cambridge and Somerville since World War II I take as fact, and don’t feel needs to be debated. By way of example in today’s terms, there is a huge amount of developable land just across the Somerville line at Lechmere, 1 mile from MIT, but last I checked, Pfizer, Google, Microsoft, Novartis, Genzyme, etc. etc. weren’t looking to locate any of their employees there anytime soon.

Agreed, I'm not debating that Cambridge and Somerville have experienced different trajectories; I'm disputing the claim that Cambridge exclusively benefited from the Redline AND that based on that claim Cambridge "deserves"? "should"? be the target of an intense housing development campaign, never mind that it happens to be located on the edge of a rapidly rising ocean. That's the point; I'm not interested in debating history (though it can certainly be fun) :-) because the future is what's staring us in the face now and we need to respond properly, based on what we think is going to happen, not based on what we think happened before.
For example, it's also true that because Cambridge has so much money we could afford to do the vulnerability study which will benefit other communities as well. Same with net zero task force and the adaptation planning that is coming up. Point is that our municipal boundaries are just another human artifact and that we can't exactly trace the impact of every dollar and say this only benefited the people who happened to live within this boundary (what about the people who work within the boundary?). We are one nation, one state (commonwealth) and one city. The city boundaries primarily affect how much property taxes we pay per square foot and how we organize our schools. Everything else bleeds across the boundaries pretty liberally including people, cars, money, jobs, garbage, pollution, energy and water.

To me, it’s not at all about “settling scores” or anything like that.  It is entirely about regional and long-term planning and trying to come up with rational, reasonable, equitable answers to a very complex set of problems.
I just think someone should go to Belmont Town Meeting soon (or Lexington, or wherever) to tell them too. They may have their own opinions on the subject. ;-) In fact, my guess is they probably will.

The starting point for rational planning is to assemble the best available information about the current situation. Chris Field, a lead author of the latest IPCC climate assessment and nominee for new chair of the IPCC, summarized the findings of this assessment at Harvard on Tuesday. The assessment qualifies as an authoritative summary of the best available information we have about climate risks. He said that we are in an age of managing the risks of climate change.
Consider that thought for a moment. If we take it seriously, it fundamentally changes the nature of planning. It radically expands the range of contingencies that must be considered in addition to the more or less certain changes to the climate and environment, such as heat waves and heavier precipitation events.

The IPCC's assessment of future sea-level rise is, I believe, between 2 and 6 feet by 2100 and is heavily dependent on the level of future GHG emissions. This is bad enough for Boston and Cambridge in view of the risk of large storm surges, but it is not the full range of contingencies that must be taken into account.

As Field put it, these projections do not take into account the possibility of "singular events" such as a collapse of one or more major ice sheets or the Greenland ice cap. In other words, the best information we have is that there is a real possibility of much larger sea level rise within the planning horizon, and this is a risk that we must address in our plans if we hope to manage it. We need to discuss it and have a public conversation about what we want to do to plan for the possibility of a retreat from the coast.

Kairos Shen, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the top planning official in Boston, did not mention this possibility in a talk about planning for sea level rise last month. And, BTW, he dismissed out of hand the possibility of a building a sea wall to protect Boston.
There are examples, such as Holland, for how we might cope with gradual changes and even the occasional storm surges. We need to start to think seriously about how the region could cope with a sudden, catastrophic change. This could be a project that unites the region, and it is a more meaningful and urgent one than coming up with a plan for the 2024 Olympics.