Density Matters

For much of the second half of the 20th Century, suburban sprawl spread over the American landscape as people fled the cities in search of their own bit of residential heaven that included a yard, a single-family house, perhaps a white picket fence. And maybe even a dog.

Downtown Minneapolis skyline

Photo by Dan Anderson, Courtesy of Meet Minneapolis

But that automobile-dependent growth came at a cost, experts say, including billions of tons of emissions spewed from vehicle tailpipes that contribute greatly to a myriad of environmental problems.

Now, with cities becoming more attractive again — especially to millennials and baby boomers — urban planners are trying to come up with ways to increase density through infill, transit oriented development (TOD) and changing zoning regulations to encourage the building of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), duplexes, triplexes and other multifamily dwellings.

Some cities are on the verge of doing away entirely with single-family zoning.

Some cities, such as Minneapolis, are on the verge of doing away entirely with single-family zoning, which has ruled much of the American urban landscape for more than seven decades. In Minneapolis, 70 percent of the city is currently zoned exclusively for single-family homes.

And in March, the Seattle City Council approved a plan that allows for denser commercial and residential construction in 27 city neighborhoods and urban villages where apartment buildings are already allowed, and the expansion of some of those neighborhoods to include areas once reserved for single-family homes.

Minneapolis commuter bus near a residential apartment building

Courtesy of Minneapolis Metro Transit

Minneapolis Planning Commission President Sam Rockwell said he is confident the city’s new comprehensive plan — dubbed 2040 Minneapolis — will lead to higher density, add housing and create more environmentally friendly, walkable, affordable and inclusive neighborhoods.

While this prosperous Minnesota city is breaking new ground in its scope, others around the country are watching it closely and considering following in its steps — or at least copying parts of it.

Moreover, a bill introduced in the California legislature by Sen. Scott Wiener this year would “upzone” much of the land in the state that’s now dedicated solely to single-family housing, letting developers build duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and sometimes taller buildings in what are called “transit-rich” zones.

F. Noel Perry, a San Francisco-based philanthropist who created the nonpartisan “Next 10” think tank 15 years ago, said Wiener’s legislation could help meet the state’s goal of reducing emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

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Next 10 funded the “Right Type, Right Place: Assessing the environmental and economic impact of infill residential development through 2030” report. Perry said it shows that the state could reduce emissions by 1.79 million metric tons annually if California implements more dense building programs. That’s the equivalent of taking a whopping 378,000 cars off the road each year.

The study, Perry said, was prepared by impartial researchers at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley and the university’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment.

He called it one of the first academic, comprehensive evaluations of the economic and environmental impacts on new housing on the state’s 2030 climate goals.

The idea is to change zoning codes to allow more apartments near transit. If you have denser neighborhoods, commuting will be reduced and emission reductions will be significant.

“The idea is to change zoning codes to allow more apartments near transit,” he said. “We believe if you have denser neighborhoods, commuting will be reduced and emission reductions will be significant. We are talking more about multifamily housing, primarily with four or five floors.

Woman off her bicycle on a sidewalk next to light rail car

Courtesy of Minneapolis Metro Transit

“But we aren’t talking about skyscrapers, so that the character of neighborhoods doesn’t change too much. California has a major housing shortage and our report details how infill can meet the market demand of walkable, compact parts of cities that are closer to jobs, schools, parks and transit centers while providing quality-of-life benefits. That’s a big part of it, with major environmental gains, as well.”

Sen. Wiener, in an interview with “On Common Ground,” said his bill, SB50, has been pushed back for consideration until 2020. The legislation, he said, would cover the entire state and override local zoning rules to allow more housing density in job centers and near public transportation.

Focusing on increased density near jobs and public transit will lead to people driving less and perhaps even giving up their cars.

“In terms of environmental benefits, by focusing on increased density near jobs and public transit, we believe will lead to people driving less and perhaps even giving up their cars. So we’ll have less commuting and that will reduce carbon emissions.”

A lightrail car in Minneapolis arriving at a station

Courtesy of Minneapolis Metro Transit

California has a population approaching 40 million and currently has a 3.5-million housing-unit deficit, which Wiener said is equal to the deficits of the other 49 states combined. But more sprawl and building more homes further away from jobs is not the answer, for environ - mental and other reasons, he said.

“We are in a world of hurt when it comes to housing,” he said. “We need a lot more of it. But one of the major challenges we have is that in a large majority of Califor - nia, it’s illegal to build anything other than a single-family home, which places an inherent restraint on the number of homes you can build.

“So when you do build more homes, you build in sprawl that pushes people out further and further from where they work, which is not sustainable. So SB50 will legalize denser housing and meet our goals of millions of more homes. This bill focuses on building housing where it should be, so people can live near their work and near public transportation.”

Bus stop in Minneapolis with several people waiting, and other boarding a bus

Courtesy of Minneapolis Metro Transit

In Minneapolis, Planning Commission President Scott Rockwell, said the city’s ambitious new comprehensive plan — dubbed Minneapolis 2040 — would upzone the entire city and do away with single-family housing zon - ing. It was approved by the city council in November after getting approval from the regional Metropolitan Council.

It has been described as the furthest-reaching develop - ment nationally in its efforts to increase urban density. While the plan goes into effect January 1, many of the elements are still being put into place.

“This certainly doesn’t mean that single-family housing will become illegal,” Rockwell said, noting that half of the city’s residents rent. “It just means that in the future, you could put up to three units on a lot throughout the city.”

Minneapolis hopes it can reduce the housing shortage, lessen the impacts of climate change and address the city’s history of inequality.

Minneapolis has grown by more than 12 percent in the past decade to around 433,000 and is projected to add another 50,000 in the next 20 years. With Minneapo - lis 2040, Rockwell said, the city hopes it can reduce the housing shortage, lessen the impacts of climate change and address the city’s history of inequality, which includes redlining, race-based covenants and other racially restricted housing regulations.

A person riding a handicap scooter in a lightrail station

Courtesy of Minneapolis Metro Transit

Rockwell, a former lawyer who now works for the University of Minnesota in land-use planning and development, said a key theme of the 2040 plan is that a well-built city is a key component of a sustainable climate future.

“We can’t adequately address climate change through only technology,” said Rockwell, who lives in a mixeduse neighborhood he called a “mishmash of single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and apartment buildings.

“Technology is important, but it isn’t enough and our environmental problems that are accelerating climate change aren’t going to be solved by creating a different economy, either. We need to change the systems that govern how we get to work and how we live our lives on our own time: after work, with our families and on the weekends.

People walking on a pedestrian street in Minneapolis

Photo by Gina Reis, Courtesy of Meet Minneapolis

“That’s governed by the systems and the structures in which we live. I strongly believe that denser communities can and do facilitate walkability, which allows people to set aside a car or even not own a car because they can walk to local shops and they can access transit because the density is high enough for high-functioning transit systems to work. It can also improve social engagement, access to jobs and other commercial needs.”

On the transportation side, he said research that went into the 2040 plan shows “we need to have 37 percent fewer car trips in the city if we are going to meet our 80 percent emission reduction goal by 2050.“I hope our example will lead other cities to follow,” he said. “There is equally a risk that if a progressive city like Minneapolis shows it doesn’t have the resolve to address climate change, it will take the wind out of the sails of a lot of other cities that want to do this. We need to be bold, though, so I’m glad to be a part of this movement.”

“That is a big lift. Lower impact living in a transportation sense means using your feet instead of a car or using a bicycle. Being able to do that means not having to be on a bus for three hours to get to work or not having to drive to get to the grocery store.

“I hope our example will lead other cities to follow,” he said. “There is equally a risk that if a progressive city like Minneapolis shows it doesn’t have the resolve to address climate change, it will take the wind out of the sails of a lot of other cities that want to do this. We need to be bold, though, so I’m glad to be a part of this movement.”

Minneapolis Planning Director Heather Worthington said the 2040 Plan was passed in an earlier city council session by a 12-1 margin. She said there has been some pushback from some wealthier neighborhoods.

“But the call to eliminate exclusionary, single-family housing zoning also came from the community in response to our history of our racialized housing policy,” she said. “Like every American city, we had well-documented racially biased zoning that resulted in segregated areas of the city.

“So this is also a reparative tool that we can use going forward to allow greater access to those areas of the city that have a high number of amenities like schools, groceries, parks. That is the part that’s reparative. It’s also the economic sustainability part of this plan, and I’d put that up there with environmental sustainability, too.”

A lightrail car at a stop in Portland

Photos courtesy of Portland Bureau of Transportation

In Oregon, the rapidly growing city of Portland now has 600,000 residents and is expected to add another 265,000 people by 2035, increasing its population by almost half.

“We adopted a new comprehensive plan in 2016 that we’d been working on for nearly a decade, trying to figure out how we are going to handle 123,000 more households over roughly the next two decades,” said Morgan Tracy, who is in charge of the city’s infill program.

The city’s climate plan promotes building multifamily dwellings in or near neighborhood centers and transportation corridors.

He said the planning department looked at a number of different strategies, but the one that performed the best and was consistent with the city’s climate plans, promotes building multifamily dwellings in or near neighborhood centers and transportation corridors where people can live without having to use their cars. The remaining 20 percent would be in mostly single-family areas.

A mixed-use development in Portland showing a tavern on the ground floor with apartments above it

Photo courtesy of Portland Bureau of Transportation

In the transportation corridors, he said some surface parking lots are now being converted into apartments or five- or six-story high-rise buildings with a first floor of retail stores.

In the areas that are predominantly single-family, however, many of the houses now being built are in the 3,200-square-foot range and selling for more than $600,000 which he said are too expensive for most residents in a city where the median annual household income is $81,000.

People crossing the street in an urban area in Portland

Photo courtesy of Portland Bureau of Transportation

“A key is to have the kind of middle housing people want and can afford,” he said.

One of the answers, he said, is to allow more duplexes and triplexes in those predominantly single-family areas. He said the Oregon Legislature passed a law this year that requires all cities in the state with more than 10,000 residents to permit duplexes everywhere a single-family house is allowed. And in communities with more than 25,000, he said it mandates that cities allow triplexes and fourplexes in some locations.

“It basically took what we were working on and went statewide with it, though it doesn’t go into effect until 2022, allowing cities time to develop and adopt codes,” said Tracy, who lauded multi-unit housing and their shared walls for energy efficiency.

Construction zone in downtown Charlotte, NC

Courtesy of Charlotte’s Got A Lot

In Charlotte, N.C., activist Shannon Binns said the election of a majority millennial city council several years ago is moving this Southern city toward a more environmentally sustainable future.

Binns, who started the smart growth organization “Sustain Charlotte” in 2010, said he was struck, when he moved to Charlotte, by the city’s lack of adequate public transit and how much the city sprawled over the surrounding countryside.

One of the fastest-growing cities in the country and home to the corporate headquarters of Bank of America and Duke Energy, it jumped in population from 735,000 to around 900,000 in the past decade. Rapid growth is expected to continue as people from other parts of the country flock to the city, he said.

A train stop in Charlotte, NC

Courtesy of Charlotte’s Got A Lot

“If you look at Charlotte’s walkability score, it’s not very good and there aren’t many neighborhoods outside of the city center where you can easily live without a car,” said Binns, who bikes to work but owns a hybrid vehicle. “It’s not a very multi-modal city due to lack of density and lack of transportation options that only density can make happen.”

Charlotte’s city council adopted a new TOD ordinance this past spring.

But things are changing for the better, he noted. The city council adopted a new TOD ordinance this past spring that his group helped influence.

“We are a collaborative partner with city and other organizations,” he said. “We don’t organize protests. I think most city staff would say we are helpful and that we help them do the things they’d like to do, but sometimes can’t as city employees.

“Frankly, we have the luxury of speaking honestly. We have an important role to play in this process, advocating for smart growth.”

He called the new TOD ordinance “a total rewrite that is meant to allow greater density around our transit and light-rail stations. From a national perspective, it is one of the most forward-thinking plans around with no parking requirements and parking maximums.”

Charlotte also kicked off this year a two-year process to update its comp plan called Charlotte 2040. “This is really significant because the city has not written a comprehensive plan since the 1970s, which should put us on a better path to managing our growth,” he said.

“Simultaneously, the city is rewriting our entire set of development ordinances and combining them into a single ordinance that should allow higher density rules.”

Binns, who is 42, called the current city leadership and the relatively young city council, “much more progressive than in the past. They are concerned about smart growth, rather than growth for growth’s sake, combatting climate change, walkability, more transit and improving the lives of all Charlotte residents.”

And he praised the building of a 10-mile-long light rail system that runs from the center of the city to the University of North Carolina-Charlotte campus. A second section of light rail is planned, though he said it has yet to be funded.

“Increasing density, making neighborhoods more livable, and providing ways for people to get around without cars is smart because vehicle emissions are the largest source of greenhouse gases,” he said.

“Density is helping slow the encroachment into our surrounding forests and farmland that we’ve been building over for decades. When folks can walk, bike and ride transit, we are reducing our impact on the climate. And that, simply, is a good thing.”


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