The housing shortage as an environmental issue
Growing up in a suburban town, new housing projects were always accompanied by groans from the community: we’d be put in the shade by huge buildings from greedy developers looking to house all the new residents moving in. Unfortunately, new housing projects in my hometown too often consisted of replacing productive farmland with cookie-cutter, poorly-insulated, single-family-zoned, car-dependent houses on endless suburban sprawl full of pesticide-greened lawns & cul-de-sacs. While building housing can be environmentally destructive—human activity on an acre of farmland produces 66x less greenhouse gas emissions than developed land—the alternative, trapping a growing population in a not-growing housing supply, ends up being worse for the climate, through many deeply interconnected avenues. There’s a multitude of well-understood environmental issues, from fossil fuel usage to the countless disastrous effects of climate change, but housing remains a key driver terrifically mis-identified & understood as a vehicle of societal change.
The house I grew up in, in a forest outside town, is beautiful, but there’s not a single business within comfortable walking distance, & astonishingly few within biking distance (with a bike path connecting our neighborhood only arriving in 2019). I don’t know a single family without a gas-powered car (similarly, the first accessible commercial charging station in the neighborhood appeared in 2021). The bus system is laughably slow & inefficient, and it’s the peak of our transit options, with no train lines nearby, requiring a 45-minute drive to the nearest Amtrak connection. This means all trips are car trips. Conversely, living in San Francisco & New York, I regularly go weeks or months between car trips. I walk, take public subways, buses, electric bikes, and regional trains nearly everywhere. Looking through Wikipedia’s city table for modal share, it’s startling how 85% of trips in Los Angeles & 77% in Chicago use a private motor vehicle, versus 32% in New York, while highly-walkable cities Tokyo & Osaka have just 12% & 13% respectively. Transit options & bike infrastructure in cities means residents emit drastically less carbon: looking at a carbon-intensity map of the NYC metropolitan area, it’s obvious the carbon emissions per capita are concentrated in suburban areas, where housing & car-based transit can double your carbon footprint. Urban residents also get more exercise, getting more exercise in daily commutes, reducing obesity & health spending: the obesity rate in Manhattan is less than half the national average (19% in Manhattan, versus over 40% nationally). The links between personal car usage & obesity are difficult to detangle, as many factors are correlated together, but they contribute to a self-perpetuating cycle of increasing emissions through cars, obesity, & carbon-intensive healthcare. The extreme joy I experience from electric bikes remains unparalleled by other forms of transit, while people needing to drive long distances across suburban sprawl consistently report it making them miserable. While mood doesn’t directly contribute to carbon emissions, walking & biking through your neighborhood makes you feel apart of a community—a community worth investing in long-term through optimistic, carbon-friendly policies.
While my county is the fastest-growing in Pennsylvania, housing supply hasn’t kept up, leading to housing prices being 48% above the state average. My hometown’s own housing shortage means it’s not nearly cheaper enough to live there to justify the enormous downgrade of culture, social life, & professional opportunities I would see to move there as an adult. I always viewed living there forever as a failure mode for myself. There’s little the city leadership could do in the short-term to prevent all the most talented, productive young people growing up there from wanting to immediately leave—but through an urbanization, densifying housing, building lots more so the cost of living becomes reasonable, & making car ownership optional, it could become more attractive.
I always had my eyes set on leaving for a big city because it felt like the clear path to a successful career. This is readily backed up by data: people in cities are more innovative, meeting & collaborating with far more experts in their fields & related professionals than in suburbs. 10 US cities, with under 10% of the US population in 2007, produced 70% & 79% of total patents in computer science & semiconductors respectively. Since our beginnings, humanity has been missing out on innovation from a massive percentage of humans through sexism, racist economic systems that keep people trapped in slavery, servitude, debt, & poverty, and hate of all kinds. We will never make up for the human progress lost by allowing a minuscule fraction of the population to work on science, technology, art, music, & human rights. But we can unlock the fuller potential of our population by optimizing conditions. For my peers, young people going into the tech industry, though there’s the fewest barriers to building a world-transforming project we’ve ever societally had, one barrier remains obvious: the sheer cost of housing in San Francisco, the center of tech. It’s normal for summer interns to spend $5k/month to live there, or form hacker houses to split rent with 10+ others. It means that nearly all my friends who got early starts to their careers came from backgrounds & families that allowed parents to financially support them. By limiting the number of people who can live in San Francisco, by building next to no new housing even as the population has rapidly risen, we’re hurting societal productivity, missing out on new ideas, companies, & jobs to work on solving climate change.
With rising incomes & expectations, people expect space, and when they can’t find it in cities, they move to suburbs & more affordable, more sprawling cities, with all the carbon emissions that entails. More affordable sunbelt cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, & Atlanta are top destinations, seeing their populations skyrocket over the last few decades. The larger, more carbon-intensive homes in these places need more air conditioning, require cars (which are less likely to be electric), land space for lawns (sometimes with environmentally-destructive lawn care requirements), and make up suburban neighborhoods where people are more likely to develop NIMBY ideology, which perpetuates the cycle. Apartment blocks in cities, alongside being smaller, use less energy to heat/cool via having less external surface area, alongside the host of benefits discussed above. These dense neighborhoods can utilize drastically more carbon-efficient (& cheaper) heating/cooling methods such as networked heat pumps.
It’s a common understanding across the US that rent is out of control—especially in the most desirable cities, such as New York & San Francisco. Yet these & new dense cities are critical to the success of humanity. We need them immediately for their lower per-capita carbon footprints through walkability, transit, more efficient architecture. We need them for developing the very solutions that will get us out of this climate crisis. We need them to allow the relocation & preservation of culture from prior cities & broad swaths of land going underwater from sea level rise, and to prevent gentrification from forcing out existing residents back into lower-density places. The housing shortage, while traditionally seen as an economic or political issue, forms the undercurrent of our environmental crises galore. It’s time to build…dense housing.
I’ve long heard about housing as a key social/societal issue, but until reading Sam Bowman’s piece in researching this article, I never understood its key role as this undercurrent for environmental issues. For my whole life I’ve also watched the housing situation unfold in my hometown one local news headline at a time, & got sad & frustrated by the need to drive cars, but never connected the dots at how my own neighborhood & town exemplified many problems the housing shortage has contributed to across the country. (As nearly always with my writing, I focus on the US not because this issue isn’t happening elsewhere, but I don’t have the cultural context to feel confident speaking to systems elsewhere.)
This understanding of housing has clicked into place several other parts of my ideology/understanding of climate & social issues in this country. Though in my early years of being a Climate Person I was a bearer of constant tragic news, alongside the deeply-set personal optimism I’ve developed over the last two-ish years, my understandings of the abundance agenda & now of the role of dense housing have transformed my view of climate change. We’re not all going to make it, but we will, come both hell & high water, turn this ship around & improve our world.