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Santa Monica is creating a low-carbon city only rich people can enjoy

Without density, urban “greening” is mostly symbolic.

santa monica (Shutterstock)

The world is rapidly urbanizing. It follows that a key part of tackling climate change is figuring out how to decarbonize cities. And all the evidence points to the conclusion that density — reducing the distances city dwellers need to travel and the shared energy and infrastructure needed to serve their needs — is a necessary prerequisite to serious decarbonization. (I wrote a post arguing as much a few weeks ago.)

If you want to tackle climate change, you need to support densification.

But in many growing urban areas, residents (mostly older, wealthier, whiter residents) are working hard to slow and block densification. They are doing so even as they celebrate their own eco-friendliness with back yard chicken coops, rooftop solar panels, and f’ing canvas tote bags.

The cognitive dissonance is reaching absurd levels.

Santa Monica ponders absurd new barriers to development

Take Santa Monica, California, population 92,000 or so.

It’s a really nice place. The weather is phenomenal. It’s on the beach. It has ready access to the vast human and natural resources of the LA basin. Jobs are growing faster than the national average.

In addition to its other virtues, the city has always prided itself on its environmental awareness. Most recently, the city council took the extraordinary step of requiring that, as of 2017, all new single-family homes in the city be zero-net energy (ZNE), which means they must produce more power than they consume. Santa Monica is the first city in California to take this step.

Thanks to its many advantages, lots of people want to live and work in Santa Monica. But Santa Monicans are not super-jazzed about sharing.

Today, residents will vote on Measure LV — "Land Use Voter Empowerment," or LUVE — which would require that all new buildings above two stories (or 32 feet) be specifically approved by voters.

Yes, you heard that right: If this measure is passed, the residents of Santa Monica will have to vote on every proposed building above two stories.

The city council commissioned an expert assessment of the proposal. The analysis concluded that, yes, it’s just as crazy as it sounds. It would exacerbate the problems it is trying to solve (traffic, gentrification), reduce the amount of affordable housing, and complicate the operation of emergency services. Also, most of it would be unenforceable under state law.

What’s more, as longtime city planning activist Frank Gruber explains, Santa Monica isn’t experiencing anything like the kind of headlong growth that would warrant such an extreme response.

Santa Monica has intensified its regulation of growth over the past 20 years. A recent analysis showed that since 2003 only about an average of 48,000 square feet of net new commercial space has been built in Santa Monica annually; compare this to the 9,000,000 square feet of office development that was approved in the ’80s and built by the mid-’90s.

Residential development has also been modest. Since 2003, Santa Monica has seen an average net increase of about 230 new housing units a year. Given that Santa Monica has nearly 50,000 units in total, this increase is only about half of one percent per year. This is not massive overdevelopment.

Plus, voting on individual buildings would be taking direct democracy to truly absurd lengths. As Gruber says, between state and local ballot measures, voters in Santa Monica already have close to 30 initiatives on their ballots this year. That’s a lot to study up on.

Meanwhile, 10 of the 12 current proposals to build apartment buildings in Santa Monica would need voter approval under LUVE. That would add 10 more votes to an already groaning ballot. Do the people of Santa Monica want 10 developers (and project opponents) lobbying them and dumping more money into local politics? Do they have time to read through documents and plans and assess which of 10 projects are worthwhile?

Curbed has rounded up some buildings that would have been forced to a vote (or not happened at all) if the measure had been in place throughout Santa Monica’s history. See also Alissa Walker’s Twitter feed:

LUVE is being pushed by a group of residents called, no kidding, the Residocracy. (Resemblance to both "aristocracy" and "idiocracy," while delightfully piquant, is apparently unintentional.)

Earlier this year, Residocracy (seriously, that’s what they’re called) opposed a seven-story, mixed-use development to be built near transit — the very model of sustainable urbanism. "We don’t need additional housing," said Residocracy founder Armen Melkonians at a city council meeting, in defiance of both data and reason.

These battles over development in Santa Monica go way back. A few years ago, wealthy residents in the Wilmont Neighborhood Coalition voted for a moratorium on all new development in Santa Monica. They want to pull up the drawbridge behind them.

It’s the same story as numerous other growing West-Coast cities: There are residents wealthy or lucky enough to own land/homes in the city; the land/homes are rapidly accruing value; that value depends in part on the scarcity of land/homes; thus, they would prefer to keep new land for development and new housing scarce.

I won’t settle that endless debate here. I just want to look at it through the lens of carbon emissions — something Santa Monicans, for all their good climate intentions, don’t seem to be doing.

Cities like Santa Monica need low-carbon systems, not low-carbon houses

The residents of Santa Monica enjoy a median income just shy of double the American average. Roughly 38 percent of them make more than $100,000 a year, compared to 22 percent of Americans at large.

Now imagine that LUVE passes. Picture a Santa Monica where new development has been choked off, leading property values to skyrocket further. All but the wealthiest will be priced out of housing. (Even more so than now, I mean.)

The wealthy of Santa Monica, by living in a place with strong environmental laws and standards, will avail themselves of a low-carbon lifestyle. They will live in low-carbon houses, drive low-carbon cars, and patronize low-carbon local businesses. The per-capita carbon emissions of those lucky residents will be low compared to others in their socioeconomic cohort.

But as job growth continues, people will keep coming to the city. That’s part of what keeps a city vital — people keep coming. If those people can’t afford a place to live in the city, they will be pushed to the periphery and beyond, to sprawling suburbs.

They will still drive into the city to work (that’s why suppressing housing development only increases traffic). But they will live remotely, which means infrastructure will have to be built out to support them — roads, sewers, power lines. Delivery of all services will be more carbon intensive because people will be more spread out.

And those working class people on the periphery will likely be unable to afford ZNE houses or electric cars, so they will not enjoy the low-carbon lifestyle purchased by the wealthy of Santa Monica proper.

The choices of Santa Monica residents will have reduced their own carbon emissions, but they will have increased net carbon emissions. They will have approached climate change from the perspective of personal virtue, not of systems change.

But climate change is just a numbers game. Personal virtue doesn’t count for much. The imperative is to build low-carbon systems, not individual low-carbon houses, and to get as many people as possible into those systems.

A building is a system. A neighborhood is a system. A community is a system. Part of making those nested and overlapping systems low-carbon is maximizing the number of people within them, minimizing the distances they have to travel, and providing them services with the minimum amount of energy and infrastructure.

If Santa Monica succeeds in setting up systems that enable a low-carbon lifestyle, by far the best thing it can do for the climate is to pack more people into Santa Monica.

Whereas if residents vote today at the polls to keep out newcomers, they will be doing a great disservice to the climate, no matter how many solar panels adorn their giant houses.