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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Urban density is good, says Mother Jones; we agree, says Scientific American

Kaid Benfield

Posted June 18, 2010

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NIMBY opposition to smart growth is standing in the way of environmental progress, writes Josh Harkinson in Mother Jones

As an example, he cites a proposed development in Alameda County, California, that would have added some 4,000 homes, none taller than three stories, on the 1,500-acre site of an abandoned naval air base now consisting largely of “concrete, landfill, and asbestos-stuffed warehouses.“  The new development would have had sophisticated environmental systems designed to save as much as 50 percent of energy consumption per person compared to conventional development, with energy coming from renewable sources, 25 percent generated on-site.  It would have featured passive solar conditioning, geothermal heat pumps, and gray-water systems.  

  Alameda Naval Air Station (from public planning documents)  master plan for redevelopment (from public planning documents)

The site is in the center of the metropolitan area, entirely previously developed.  Historic buildings would have been preserved, and 25 percent of the dwelling units would have been set aside as affordable housing.  Moreover, there would have been 150 acres of parks, miles of trails, shops, and offices, along with sophisticated transportation features including dedicated ferry and bus lines to Oakland and San Francisco. The local chapter of the Greenbelt Alliance endorsed the project, says Harkinson, calling it "the epitome of smart growth."

Readers of this site will note that 4,000 homes of various types on 1,500 acres is not remotely high-density.  But, nonetheless, opponents organized against the project, which would have required an exemption to Alameda’s growth cap (“There shall be no multiple dwelling units built in the City of Alameda . . . The maximum density for any residential development within the City of Alameda shall be one housing unit per 2,000 square feet of land").  The amendment was put to voters, who rejected it by an overwhelming 85-15 margin.  Opponents had argued that, instead of housing, the site should be used for green industry:  “a wind farm, a solar power plant, a factory for the electric carmaker Tesla Motors, and an ‘ecobranch’ of the cash-strapped University of California.”

I do not know the Alameda project personally, though I have read the public planning documents quickly.  I can't say what its true benefits and costs would have been although, in general, the Greenbelt Alliance and I see things very much the same way.  In any event, beyond Alameda, Harkinson is clearly right in making a more general point that urban infill and density are essential to a sustainable future:

“Fighting local growth can undermine the larger environmental values that many NIMBYs believe in. By 2050, the United States can expect to add as many as 200 million people. Demographers predict that they'll require 90 million houses and 140 billion square feet of office and other nonresidential space—the equivalent of replacing all the country's existing buildings. If we keep building in the way we do now, suburbs will gobble up a New Mexico-size amount of open space in the next 40 years. More suburbs mean more freeways and more cars, which means that by mid-century, Americans will clock 7 trillion miles per year—twice as much mileage as we do now. The alternative to this metastasizing, car-dependent sprawl is population density. And that means squeezing more people into cities and inner suburbs like Alameda. According to the Greenbelt Alliance, the Bay Area could absorb another 2 million residents by 2035 without expanding its physical footprint.”

  Alameda Naval Air Station (by: Dawn Endico, creative commons license)  part of the vision that voters rejected (from public planning documents)

Harkinson probes the roots of environmentalists’ distrust of urban development, citing Thoreau and Muir.  He continues:

“Determined to make cities more livable, environmentalists have promoted parks and public transit, fought freeways and factories, and portrayed developers as the ultimate bad guys. But these well-intentioned efforts to curb the Robert Moses-style excesses of urban development had unintended consequences. Strict limits on building height and attempts to squeeze ever-larger concessions from urban developers (but not suburban ones) drove up the cost of housing in many cities—sending builders and home buyers looking for open space . . . SunCal developer Pat Keliher says that many of his colleagues simply avoid the cost of battling urban skeptics by building on out-of-town farmland: 'It's the old adage—cows don't talk.'"

Being harder on urban development than on suburban subdivisions has been environmental organizations’ worst fault, in my opinion.  I am all for doing everything we can to soften the environmental impacts of urbanity.  But the impacts of car-dependent suburban environments are far worse in almost every respect, when considered on a per-capita basis.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have suburbs, along with cities: it means we should build them better.  And it means that our regulatory structure and policy incentives should be structured in a way that encourages rather than penalizes infill and compact, walkable city neighborhoods.  More environmental organizations must speak up about this, and oppose NIMBYism that seeks to block sensible, walkable urbanism.  Harkinson’s article is a good one and may be accessed here.

Writing in Scientific American, William Rees doesn’t mince words:

“The sprawling North American city in particular is a product of the cheap energy and profligate consumption of a materially exuberant age that is rapidly coming to an end. Cities may well confront a triple specter of climate change, scarcity of energy and resources, and broken supply lines . . . Today’s land-grabbing, auto-dominated, fuel-inefficient metropolises have evolved into parasitic black holes, sucking in excessive megatons of energy and materials from all over the globe and spewing out volumes of (often toxic) waste.”

  traffic backs up on the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge (by: Gohsuke Takama, creative commons license)  the environment would benefit from more neighborhoods like Oakland's Fruitvale Transit Village (by: Eric Fredericks,

Rees agrees that compact urban neighborhoods are key to the solution:

“Climate science indicates that to have even a chance of avoiding a catastrophic increase in mean global temperature, the worldwide economy must be largely de­carbonized by 2050. The [National Intelligence Council] argues that the U.S. should actually complete its transition by 2025. Such goals pose an unprecedented challenge to urban authorities at all levels.

“To begin to meet that challenge, state and municipal governments must create the land-use legislation and zoning bylaws that urban planners need to consolidate metropolitan areas and smartly raise their density.”

Rees explains that, although our solutions must begin with urban densities, they can’t end there.  He urges that, in addition to walkability, mixed uses, more advanced recycling, and co-generation in heating and cooling systems, “urban designers must rethink cities as complete ecosystems. The most resilient option might be a bioregional city-state in which a densely built-up core is surrounded by supportive systems.”  The proposition is expanded somewhat in the full article, here

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page


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Lucy GalbraithJun 18 2010 12:45 PM

Thanks, Kaid! I am forwarding to my fellow greens immediately.

PeterJun 18 2010 01:40 PM

that plan is absurd.

first, the plan only pays lip service to biking. somebody please explain this to me -- how do you expect us to take your 'green' development seriously when it can't even be accessed by bicycle? and, no -- a six-foot bike lane, not separated from heavy, loud, fast-moving, smog-trundling, motorized traffic does not qualify as 'access'. bikers require a safe, comfortable, dignified way to get onto and off the island. it's not rocket science. any proposed development that doesn't put non-motorized transport at the top its sustainability priorities is an automatic FAIL. it's just a non-starter.

looking at the plan, which seems to value motorized transportation (including PRT, BRT, and some other whatever-RTs) above all else, i'm surprised that only 85% of the local population rejected it.

and tall is beautiful? then really tall must be really beautiful, right? i'm just trying to argue for a little common sense. developers and 'greens' who argue for tall buildings are a dime a dozen -- i'll go with Salingaros and crew, though, because they actually care about sustainability.

even in arguing for the type of transportation, the plan says a rail/streetcar solution is too expensive. apparently, it's better to force people onto loud, uncomfortable, non-electrified buses that are great for scaring people away from biking. smart. we have an entire history that can inform us about how people will decide to travel when their only option is a bus or a car -- yet this plan still wants to offer us only buses. or uber-polluting ferries. yes - this project is full of smart.

the "cows don't talk" nonsense is like transit people trying to out-compete cars -- it will never happen. the cost of doing 'car' business is essentially zero -- all costs are externalized. ditto building out in the farmlands. Oregon figured it out -- Cali has shown a willingness to consider it. without growth boundaries, we'll continue down the road of 'happy motoring' until conditions are even more unpleasant for all of us. so the answer is not to bash residents as NIMBYs -- anybody can do that -- the answer is to advocate for more and better urban growth boundaries. and to create a policy that allows small, incremental projects. we don't have to be in the business of destroying cities and towns just to make a few developers and bankers rich -- places should arise as naturally/incrementally as possible.

p.s. i think your rss feed is now broke.

Kaid @ NRDCJun 18 2010 05:11 PM

I'm not sure why you have such a caustic attitude, Peter. As I said, I do not know the pros and cons of the Alameda proposal well, but I suspect you are allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Greenbelt Alliance does know the details well, and this is from their press release on the project:

After careful consideration, Greenbelt Alliance, the Bay Area’s leading advocate of open space protection and smart growth development, has endorsed the plan to redevelop the Alameda Point Naval Air Station in the City of Alameda . . .

"The proposed development of Alameda Point is a win for Alameda and a win for the Bay Area," said Jeremy Madsen, Executive Director of Greenbelt Alliance. "If we want a region that is climate-friendly and less auto-dependent, that safeguards our iconic landscapes and creates great neighborhoods for all Bay Area residents, this is exactly the right kind of development" . . .

For years, about 1,000 acres of the decommissioned Naval Air Station have sat neglected on the western end of Alameda. The redevelopment plan calls for a 60-acre sports complex, new waterfront and community parks, and outdoor recreation opportunities, linked by bike-friendly boulevards. Toxic contamination, left over from the Navy era, would be cleaned up. Expanded ferry services would increase transit options to San Francisco for all Alameda residents. Over 1,000 homes in the mixed-use community would be affordable to people with moderate, low, and very low incomes, increasing housing choices for Alameda’s socio-economically diverse population.

Greenbelt Alliance recognizes that the proposed Alameda Point development and Measure B are controversial among Alameda residents and leaders. Some of the criticism is understandable . . . However, Greenbelt Alliance believes that the long-term benefits of development at Alameda Point outweigh the shortcomings of the development proposal . . .

"If the redevelopment of Alameda Point does not move ahead now it could be years, even decades, before something happens with the old Naval Air Station,” said Madsen. "Alameda deserves better. If Measure B passes, it will lead to a great community at Alameda Point, a place Alameda residents will be proud of and a model for the entire Bay Area."

If you disagree so passionately, you may wish to discuss the matter with the Alliance, whose contact information may be found on their website.

By the way, if you read this blog, you will find lots of support for incremental approaches to smart growth and opposition to mindless high-rises. You and I agree that "destroying cities and towns" is not the answer. And your argument to support that point will be strengthened if you aim at something more intense and destructive than three-story buildings on an abandoned military base.

JasperJun 22 2010 11:05 AM

Here in the UK there has been some debate in the press on 'garden grabbing'. Larger gardens have been 'grabbed' by developers to build blocks of flats. The new Coalition Government intends to put a halt to this. Some, however, say that less building in these areas will put more housing pressure on the green belt and countryside. There is a blog posting about this subject on SolarUK's blog.

RexJun 25 2010 11:11 AM

As I understand, Alameda land use regulations limit residential development to 1 housing unit per 2,000 square feet of land. This produces 22 units per acre.

New development interests have proposed the addition of 4,000 units on the largely vacant military base that occurs on gross area of 1,500 acres. While the net densities may be higher than the cap allows, the overall addition of just under 3 units of housing unit per acre does not seem excessive.

Is this the truth, or do I have my facts wrong? This is why I need some help here:

The stories and follow-up discussion about Alameda that are bouncing around the blogosphere are growing because of the “no growth” charter. It seems to me that the desire to get a “super growth” charter for a hyper-dense city, the balance of a growth cap has logic. The common ground question I’m working on engages the metrics of where and how both can or should occur among the nation’s mega regions.

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