On a simple walk back from class, I notice something popping up along the Berkeley skyline almost daily. It towers over the buildings, its presence a friendly reminder of progress. The crane, which resides in construction sites across the city, casts a shadow over the sidewalk, the people and neighboring structures. While my roommate finds the metal machine captivating, its ominous shadow parallels the uncertainty I feel about what it is helping develop. Who will these buildings benefit? Who will have access to them? But beyond the questions of accessibility and use, there are other questions to consider. For example, what is the environmental cost of urbanization to the public? As a semi-permanent resident of Berkeley, over the past two years I have seen many buildings and roads get replaced and be built from the ground up, and for what? Yes, we need more student housing and “better” facilities for our growing academic departments. But do the social, ethical and environmental risks to the community really come second to building up Berkeley?
It is ironic that new housing plans — which would not only release contaminants into the air but would also be the source of land degradation and excessive waste production — are being made on the property of a university that facilitates and houses environmental activism and research. In a few years, the Oxford Tract, which is home to the Student Organic Garden and many Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) labs, could become nothing but a memory of what environmentalism here at UC Berkeley stood for. On my walk back to my apartment, I pass the tract’s greenhouses and insectaries and consider the imminent possibility of losing facilities that aid environmental advancement to housing for students who will now lack the resources and space to pursue environmental research.
And while people in ESPM may be worried about losing their facilities, we have to consider that Berkeley is facing a housing crisis, a major problem that so far has had no clear solution. But could the solution be constructing more student housing on this lot? Some may argue that this could be a way of preventing UC Berkeley students from living in less than ideal conditions, in apartments that breed mold and are under constant threat of carbon monoxide poisoning or potentially in no home at all. I believe that the answer to this complex public health issue of housing cannot be resolved by putting university money in a project that would also put the environment and the citizens of Berkeley at more risk.
What are these risks you may ask, and why are they important in a city where so much construction is taking place? Construction produces extensive amounts of air pollutants such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides that not only impact the air quality of a community (and therefore the health of its residents), but also contribute to smog production and climate change. While the actual act of construction can have harmful effects on communities, the health effects after buildings are constructed are also an important concern. Many buildings are still being constructed with materials that contain harmful toxicants such as volatile organic compounds and known carcinogens. While measures are being taken to improve the safety of building materials, there are still risks to human health that could be avoided by reducing construction with these resources or reducing construction in general.
So what alternatives do we have in Berkeley if we lack student housing and construction is already underway? Advocating for cheaper and healthier existing housing could solve a lot of the problems that we are facing, because many students live in unhealthy conditions or are homeless because of high rental prices. Being aware of where housing is being proposed and advocating for better construction practices can not only help reduce the incidences of conflict between groups with different interests but also reduce negative health outcomes due to construction. Finally, the best alternative would be to build smarter and collaborate with people working on sustainable development and housing — people in our own city planning department. With their expertise, we can come up with better solutions to our housing issue, such as altering existing student housing to accommodate more people efficiently. I believe that with these alternatives the health of Berkeley residents will not have to be put second to the expansion of our city.