Prayer or Politics: How Do We Get a Sustainable City?

Yesterday I got personal with my own experience with politics and honesty. We’re smart enough and science is on our side when it comes to density, for example, but if we don’t hold politicians accountable for what they do and don’t do to make density happen nothing is going to change for the better. My last post was about the intimate side of politics and land use, but what about the practical side.

I decided to start getting my thoughts together on how, if we start with the limits of how we use land, we end up getting right back to the messy business of electoral politics. What are the limitations on how we use our land in the city?

The Limits of Land Use

  • Physical – Does the site or building materials limit use?
  • Financial – how does the project pay for itself?
  • Health and safety – is the project going to meet basic health and safety standards?
  • Regulatory – what laws and rules are in place that limit development on the site?

What can expand these limits?

  • Physical – innovation and design (e.g. apodments, big houses small lots, density, technological innovations.
  • Health and safety – outputs rather than inputs can reduce costs while keeping people safe. For example, not all older buildings need a full fire retrofit as long as patrons can safely exit building in case of an emergency.
  • Financial – the most important financial tool to increase development potential is borrowing money
  • Regulatory – relaxing code requirements can reduce costs, expand development capacity, and achieve better alignment with physical, financial, and health and safety limits

What sets or controls these limits?

Government plays an extraordinary and important role in how land gets used since it regulates each area of limitation and it can provide financial incentives and disincentives within the market in each area.  For example, the government can enact legislation to subsidize innovations in engineering, impose taxation on financial institutions that lend money to developers, impose strict land use regulations, or set stringent health and safety rules.

Every facet of life in the United States bears a regulatory stamp whether it is an explicit regulation or something that is less obvious. This presents obvious challenges and opportunities. Government can, through taxation, regulation, and other incentives like subsidies, largely determine how the built environment of a city evolves.

Government controls on each of these areas are subject to the decision making process of elected officials and the recommendations of non-elected government staff. Therefore, while technical and financial realities are hard limits to how we use land, but the only other thing limiting how land gets used are political priorities. Up to the very limits of engineering and design, the price of money, and safety, there are no limits to the use of land other than those set by political priorities.

Often these political limitations seem insurmountable unless we look at how change in land use happened over decades. Who could have predicted that over the course of one hundred years, the United States would go from a country with a few thousand cars and a few thousand miles of highway, to a country with millions of both. This shift from a society and economy more accustomed to rail mass transit to individuals driving cars was the result, over time, of deliberate and identifiable policy shifts completed by government and framed by political priorities.

The idea of large quantities of debt being affordably incurred by families after World War II was a financial innovation dependent largely on the federal governments willingness to back home loans for single family homes, a typology of housing that was less common. The single-family home is a land intensive use and it relies heavily on the automobile and highway travel. Certainly the modern day suburb could have been designed for mass transit, and the housing type could have been more dense multifamily. But both the housing and automotive industry exploded at roughly the same time, becoming dependent on one another.

The social norm of the single-family home with a car parked in front was the result of tax policy, subsidization, and regulation that favored and sanctified that norm over other options. Even if it truly is “too expensive” to live in the city, it isn’t because of some random act of nature, but rather the prioritization of one model of living over another though government policy framed by politics.

When voters who aspire to ownership of a single-family home determine political futures, then the single-family model will progressively win out over other options. And, ironically, then it becomes “cheaper” to get a massive loan for a very poor and inefficient use of land, than to live in a densely populated city.

The truth is that we, through government policy and action, can make living in one place “too expensive” and living in another “affordable.” We can make sustainable choices an automatic feature of our systems and economy rather than making people choose between a myriad of options that are of various shades of green.

Everything I’ve written here is blindingly obvious isn’t it? But why, in Seattle, do we engage the culture war on topics such as abortion, gay marriage, and gun control, for example, but refuse to engage in the important political social shift needed to get to a sustainable city?

As I pointed out in my last post, politics can be a highly personal business, and political motives are not always anchored in rational thinking. We need to challenge politicians about why they want power. But we also need to bring our resources to bear on how we influence the political choices being made every day so they go our way.

I’ll keep saying it over and over again: we need to stop talking about all the cool ways we can make the world and our city more sustainable, and start doing things to reverse decades of bad choices supported by our political system. If all we are going to do is attend brown bags, charettes, and conferences we might as well just pray the rosary for a sustainable city; it might actually be more effective.

Can we talk, brown bag, and conference our way to sustainability? Or maybe we should say a prayer.

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