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Hey, Leonardo DiCaprio: true climate champions don’t fight against urban density [Updated]

leo dicaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio talking climate, ignoring density.
(Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

UPDATE: The post below says that Leonardo DiCaprio is a supporter of an LA ballot measure called the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. It turns out he is not. After this post (and Alissa Walker's original post) was published, a DiCaprio rep contacted me to clarify. A while back, DiCaprio signed a petition about preserving a particular building with significance to Hollywood; since then, the Coalition to Preserve LA has been claiming him as a supporter of its broader initiative. (The group claims it's a big misunderstanding.) In fact, DiCaprio and his foundation have taken no position on the initiative.

The original post, which makes many non-DiCaprio-related points, is below.

Over at Curbed Los Angeles, Vox's sister site, Alissa Walker has gone and written a post that I’ve been meaning to write for years.

Narrowly speaking, her argument is directed at Leonardo DiCaprio, an outspoken climate champion, about an anti-density ballot measure in Los Angeles he supports:

The DiCaprio-supported Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which will be on LA city’s ballot in March, is calling for a two-year building moratorium to suppress "luxury megaprojects" citywide—specifically targeting high-rise towers and development located near transit.

This initiative is part of a clutch of NIMBY ("not in my backyard") efforts underway in the LA area, as wealthy, mostly white people who had the good fortune to buy houses when LA was smaller, sleepier, and more affordable — or who can afford its current stratospheric prices — try to freeze their communities in place. This one is even more insane:

Santa Monica’s anti-density measure, LV, is the most troubling, as it would require a citywide vote to approve any new structure over 32 feet. This would make it politically (and economically) difficult to erect buildings more than two stories tall in a prohibitively expensive city that already has limited room to grow, pushing workers farther and farther away from their jobs.

Such NIMBY battles are being waged in almost every big city, but they are especially acute along the West Coast. The people fighting hardest against development are generally upscale, older, educated, white professionals, the very people most likely to call themselves liberals and climate hawks. They buy solar panels, drive Teslas, and carry their f’ing tote bags everywhere, but they are standing in the way of carbon reductions. At least at the level of broad public consciousness, the dissonance still hasn’t sunk in.

Walker’s broader point is simple: You can’t really be a champion for the climate (DiCaprio recently made a documentary about climate change called Before the Flood) and also oppose urban density. Dense development, she writes, is, "quite literally, the single best thing that a city can do for the planet."

Density in Long Beach, CA.
Dense development in Long Beach, California.
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

This point really cannot be emphasized enough. Whether you look narrowly at greenhouse gases or more broadly at all pollution — climate, air, and water — clustering people together is a more effective mitigation strategy than almost anything else you can do. If you have to choose between six families living in a six-story building powered by coal and natural gas and six families in six separate homes with solar panels on the roof and Priuses in the driveway … you choose the six-story building.

All the biggest, fastest ways to reduce carbon emissions are on the demand side; switching out supply for cleaner options, whether it’s solar power plants or electric cars, always takes longer. And there is no demand-side solution more potent than density.

Transportation has become climate enemy No. 1

Part of this has to do with a dynamic my colleague Brad Plumer wrote about a few months ago: Electricity emissions in the US are falling, while transportation emissions are heading back up, to the point that the latter are now bigger than the former. Transportation emissions are officially America’s primary climate challenge.

US CO2 emissions from transport exceeded those from power gen in the 12 months thru Feb 2016. (Sam Ori)

Electric cars are great (I am a big fan), but they are 1 percent of vehicles on the road today. Even the most optimistic forecasts put their penetration at 35 percent of new vehicles sold by 2040. In the meantime, zoning rules can be changed overnight. Mixed-use developments can be built in a year or two.

The fastest, cheapest way to reduce transportation emissions is to reduce the distances people need to travel, and the way to do that is to create communities where homes, businesses, and services are accessible by foot, bike, or transit.

Walker notes another important reason density is key: "Less than half of the U.S.’s transportation emissions, however, are from the transportation of humans," she writes. "The shipment of goods has become the most dangerous enabler of climate change."

The fastest solution, again, is on the demand side — cluster destinations together, centralize delivery systems, and minimize trips.

Walker summarizes:

Building a two-story building surrounded by a city-mandated parking lot on an extra wide street is not the worst thing you could do for the planet. The worst thing you could do for the planet is codify this kind of development into the land use and planning policies of your city to make building anything else impossible.

Amen. I don’t care much about Leo DiCaprio’s personal carbon emissions. His significance lies in his advocacy and influence. He’s using them to positive effect on climate change, with his foundation, his documentary, and his vocal support for the cause. But by supporting NIMBY groups, he is undercutting his own work and using his influence for ill.

A growing city is a good thing; impeding that growth isn’t

This is not to say that you have to live in a city if you care about climate change. Again, no one person’s personal emissions matter all that much. Live wherever you want.

But if you live in a vibrant, growing area that’s creating jobs, where people want to move and live, and you are fighting that growth by advocating for policies that constrain it — because you love your view and your on-street parking, because of the "character of the neighborhood," because you don’t want "those people" coming to your neighborhood on transit, because you’ve lucked into suburban idyll with all the urban amenities, because your home value rises the more housing supply constricts, because you’ve been led to believe that capping housing supply counteracts rather than accelerates gentrification — then no, sorry, you are not a climate hawk. You might even be some kind of, I don’t know, denier.

If you want to live in a place that’s not growing, and is unlikely to grow anytime soon, there are a number of small towns across the country that fit that description. They would love to have you.

Or if you simply must have your single-family home on a wide street with on-street parking, a lawn of your very own, and freedom from unsightly intrusion by people who make less money than you, you might think about moving to one of America’s many outer-ring suburbs or exurbs. There are plenty of them, and more are being built all the time.

exurban hell
All the single-family homes you could want.

But you can no longer defend your little swath of low-density, single-family housing in the middle of valuable urban land, while your home value rises and the working-class people with jobs in your area are forced to live on the periphery and spend a third of their income on transportation costs, and maintain that you care about climate change.

Most people acknowledge the obvious fact that attracting more jobs and people to a city is a good thing. It’s a sign of a robust, healthy city. But if you want the jobs and the people, you have to build the housing. Adjusting to life with higher density is the price you pay to enjoy the social dynamism, intellectual ferment, and economic innovation that cities produce. It’s also the single best thing you can do for the climate.

Further reading:

  • Way back in 2011, I wrote a series of blog posts about "great places" — what they look like, the benefits they bring, and their potential to reorient progressive politics. It gets a little ahead of itself in places, but overall I think it holds up pretty well.
  • My colleague Matt Yglesias wrote a book on these subjects called The Rent Is Too Damn High. You should buy it.
  • Vox’s sister site Curbed is all over this stuff. So is the Atlantic’s CityLab. So are a bunch of other sites these days, which is great to see.
  • Finally, if you’re a fellow Seattleite, be sure to bookmark Dan Bertolet over at Sightline. He knows from cities.