Cities are key to a sustainable future

Kelly Baird/File

On Earth Day, we hear a lot of green admonishments: Bike to work. Recycle and compost more. Eat locally (and go vegetarian or vegan). If we’re lucky, we might even hear about some of the work our state and local governments are doing to help the environment: We’re switching to carbon-free electricity. We’re building high-speed rail. We’re driving the transition to electric vehicles. But very rarely do we hear the No. 1 thing that all of these efforts hinge upon, the action that will make or break the planet: building more housing.

Specifically, building more housing in walkable communities, close to jobs and schools and transit and amenities — in other words, cities.

Why is building housing in cities so important? Consider everything we’re advocating for and working toward in order to be more sustainable: biking to work, recycling and composting, taking transit, buying an electric vehicle, using clean power. Every single one of those actions depends upon being in a location where those things are possible.

Right now, a sizable majority of Americans are denied access to these sustainable practices because of a shortage of housing in the handful of cities that are leading the way on sustainability. Forget about composting — nearly a quarter of all Americans lack curbside recycling or access to bins. Roughly 85 million Americans live in states that get less than 5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources — and if you exclude large hydropower, that number skyrockets to 167 million. High-frequency transit exists almost exclusively in the urban cores of America’s largest cities, and many Americans live in suburban and rural areas poorly served by transit, where biking and walking are practically out of the question.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, many trips are taken by sustainable modes (walking, biking and transit); residents can get 100 percent carbon-free electricity, and recycling and composting are mandatory. We live in a completely different world than the vast majority of Americans, and it’s an injustice that more people don’t have the opportunity to live in a city like this.

The reason more people don’t have the opportunity to live like this is clear: We don’t have enough housing.

Of course there is still room for improvement in cities such as Berkeley and San Francisco. Too many of our existing residents are still dependent upon private automobiles to get around because their neighborhoods — mostly low-rise, single-family neighborhoods — don’t have adequate transit service. However, it’s a chicken and an egg problem: Neighbors oppose more housing because there isn’t adequate transit, while transit agencies can’t justify increasing service to these (frequently wealthier, whiter) neighborhoods without more riders living there.

BART can’t justify an expansion without knowing that new service will get proportionately high ridership. As a result, BART has historically expanded into fast-growing suburbs, while transit service in the urban cores deteriorates.

It wouldn’t take much — cities around the world arguably may be able to support extensive subway networks with just six-to-eight story apartments, such as those we see in Downtown Berkeley and Southside. Building housing like that throughout our neighborhoods would mean we’d have the money we needed to improve transit and help even more residents — new and existing alike — get out of their cars.

Unfortunately, building apartments in those neighborhoods is illegal.

The single-family residential zoning so prevalent in Berkeley and San Francisco was written to explicitly exclude low-income people and people of color by banning the housing they lived in. Single-family zoning was invented by developers to reinforce their property values and those of their white homebuyers. And though the explicit racial prejudices have since been removed, the effect remains largely the same: These restrictions drive up housing prices and rents, enriching established homeowners and landlords while exacerbating inequality and raising barriers to upward economic mobility.

Sustainability is about addressing environmental, social and economic issues simultaneously. Cities are where that happens, and building housing in those cities is how. Without building housing in urban centers, we can’t get people out of cars, we can’t undo the lasting impacts of segregation, and we can’t increase access to jobs while redistributing wealth. The sustainability battle of our time is the building of new homes in cities.

So when it comes to Earth Day, don’t limit yourself to your own lifestyle — consider how else you can help your community be more sustainable and improve the lives of others. Join your local housing advocacy groups so people currently living in far-flung suburbs can have homes near BART. Speak to your elected officials about pro-housing legislation such as state Sen. Nancy Skinner’s bill to create more low- and middle-income student housing, SB 1227. Volunteer on political campaigns for pro-housing candidates, join clubs supporting those candidates or even run for office on a pro-housing platform yourself.

Ultimately, sustainability efforts will be won in city halls and capitol buildings across the country (and around the world). While the individual actions one can take are certainly nice, the scale of change we need to solve these problems requires the full support of our governments — so let’s get to work bringing our governments on board.

Ben Gould, a UC Berkeley alumnus, serves on the City of Berkeley’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission and works as a sustainability analyst for the San Francisco International Airport. He was a former candidate for Mayor of Berkeley and Berkeley City Council.