Sometimes, when having conversations with fellow environmentalists, I find a disconnect in our understanding of urbanization. In the past, cities were regarded as dirty, unhealthy, the source of most of our emissions, and much early environmentalism was focused on rural, self-reliant, self-contained living.

One of the most well known tools of the early environmental movement, the Whole Earth Catalog, contains a great example of this thinking. For inclusion in the catalog, any product had to be “easily available by mail.” While this was a good idea – the marginal environmental impact of a delivery on a regular post office route is far lower than a car trip to the store – it presumed you didn’t live in a dense urban center where most products would be available on foot. The environmental movement was, like everyone else, heavily influenced by the recent massive investment in free highways, and the low population density that subsidized.

Unfortunately, this presumption that lower density living is more environmentally friendly has persisted. Changing that presumption is one of the core reasons for the existence of this publication.

Recently, UC Berkeley’s Cool Climate Network published an excellent set of google maps visually demonstrating that the more dense a zip code is, the lower per capita emissions. This makes sense on many levels. Higher density means more places are available on foot or bicycle. That access creates higher land value, leading to fewer McMansions and more shared infrastructure, both translating to less consumption per capita. More people sharing the same car infrastructure means more congestion and fewer open parking places, disincentivizing driving. And when density increases enough, the economy of scale of dedicated transit infrastructure makes streetcars, subways, and even high speed rail possible, lowering emissions further.

Simply put – the more dense a city center is allowed to become, the lower each person’s emissions become.

Those higher land values and lower square footage also make people choose voluntarily to have fewer children. As density increases, birthrate decreases, not just decreasing emissions per capita today, but also helping to decrease the total number of people!

A recent claim is that cities ‘generate suburbs,” supposedly negating the efficiency of the higher density centers. As we can see above, this isn’t because the cities cause more people to be born, it’s because they attract people – all the way from richest to poorest. Because we use zoning to limit the density in the center of nearly every city in the world (or we use highways to subsidize growth outside the center), we artificially cause our cities to run out of space in the middle and sprawl. Any city can become more dense, and when given the choice, people pay more for that density, as evidenced by the higher per square foot price of urban dwellings than suburban, despite the lower cost of building them.

We know failing to act to become sustainable will be costly, disruptive, and could lead to war over dwindling resources. Whether you want to slow climate change, or whether you believe we can’t anymore, our responsibility to each other is to reduce those negative outcomes as much as we can. The fastest, cheapest path anyone has devised to do so is to allow as much density as people want to build. Environmentalism today is urbanism.

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  1. Sure, urban dwellers tend to have smaller footprints of all kind. I think the challenge is to conceive and build cities that will be desirable (continuously) for centuries. I think the last sentence in this article leaps over this question.

  2. To dispense with the specious argument that dense cities generate sprawl, simply ask where else would all those people in the dense cities be living if those dense cities didn’t exist? (hint: they would be living in less dense areas, i.e. there would be MORE sprawl)

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