View of Lafayette station
Lafayette station, viewed from nearby Cross Hill, Ca., in August 2018. (Photo credit: Pi.1415926535 / Wikimedia)

Steven Falk, for nearly three decades an employee and then city manager of Lafayette, Ca., east of San Francisco, decided last fall that he had had enough of local NIMBY forces making his city less climate-friendly.

After voters rejected two measures that would have allowed new middle-income development, a new downtown park and new public parking, and the preservation of open space, Falk resigned as a matter, he said, of conscience.

“All cities – even small ones – have a responsibility to address the most significant challenges of our time: climate change, income inequality, and housing affordability,” Falk wrote in a resignation letter he posted at the time on Twitter.

“I believe that adding multifamily housing at the [Bay Area Rapid Transit] station is the best way for Lafayette to do its part, and it has therefore become increasingly difficult for me to support, advocate for, or implement policies that would thwart transit density. My conscience won’t allow it.”

Falk: Even small cities need to address ‘most significant challenges of our time.’

Falk’s ideas for increasing density in his town, and situating housing closer to public transit options, had run headlong into tough opposition. But it’s becoming clear that as California – with its continued population growth – faces the dual challenges of building more affordable housing and lowering carbon emissions, increasing housing density in urban areas offers a way forward.

“You can’t be pro-environment and anti-housing,” Marlon Boarnet, chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis at USC’s Price School of Public Policy, has said. “You can’t be anti-sprawl and anti-housing. This is something that has not been very well understood.”

Last fall, then-outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown took a step toward supporting more urban density when he signed state legislation closing a legal loophole; charter cities across the state were using that loophole to reduce the number of sites zoned for affordable housing.

The road ahead is long and steep for California, long recognized as a national leader in action on climate change and environmental programs generally. Despite its many efforts to reduce its statewide carbon footprint, California has been stymied by a simple and stubborn fact: 28 percent of the state’s carbon emissions come from cars.

California and their cars: Til WHAT do they part?

Californians are well-known to have always loved their cars, and they prefer driving alone. Just ask anyone who commutes regularly on the state’s highways. Experts across the state by and large agree that getting people out of their cars will not be accomplished simply by providing more public transportation: The state also has to re-think where houses get built.

“For too long we have created sprawl by artificially limiting the number of homes that are built near transit and job centers,” California state Senator Scott Weiner has told the website Curbed. “As a result of this restrictive zoning in urbanized areas, people are forced into crushing commutes, which undermines our climate goals.”

Local governments have a big role to play in influencing where people live and how much they drive. This past April, a UC-Davis study of 717 California cities and 58 counties found that roughly 35 percent of all carbon emissions statewide could be at least partially controlled by local governments. Urban infill – making cities more dense – is seen as one means of getting to shorter travel distances, smaller homes, smaller household and sizes (which results in fewer product purchases and less food consumption), and less waste, the study suggests.

‘Fightin’ words’ … even in progressive California

Scott Weiner’s comments are fighting words in many places, even in “green” Northern California and its San Francisco Bay area communities.

A case in point: The story of the city of Berkeley – among California’s most liberal-minded – shows how hard it can be to make progress. The online site Grist covered the challenges of getting Berkeley residents to support more housing by filling in parking lots and vacant areas.

“The problem is, it’s fashionable to say you support housing in Berkeley, then add a list of conditions and caveats that would make it very hard to build anything,” wrote Nathanael Johnson in that Grist piece. “One of Berkeley’s subway stations is surrounded by a massive surface parking lot, which could turn into condos. But at the first community meeting to discuss the idea … neighbors lined up to oppose that change. The city council later opposed a state bill that would have made it easier for the regional rail system to build new housing.”

Cities with denser housing are more walkable, the distances people have to travel are cut, and transit becomes a more viable option for people, Johnson wrote. But the reality is, people who already live in cities in many cases simply resist seeing things change.

“Berkeley has traditionally put proposals for new apartment buildings through an exacting and expensive series of public hearings that can stretch on for years,” Johnson wrote. “The politics in Berkeley, and in many cities, usually favors existing residents.”

So it appears that Berkeley, notwithstanding its reputation for liberal politics, has not, in some respects, left 1950. Back then, its population was 114,000. Today, it’s about 121,000.

The pressures mounting as a result of the warming climate may lead to still more pressure on Berkeley – and other cities resisting change – to join a warming 21st century.

More to read

Lafayette City Manager Falk announced his resignation“, East Bay Times, Sept. 25, 2018

In Lafayette, a political resignation over climate change and development,” KQED, Dec. 19, 2018

Lafayette city manager quits over lack of movement on new housing,” San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 29, 2018

California won’t meet its climate change goals without a lot more housing density in its cities,” Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2017

When electric isn’t good enough: Sacramento is the staging ground for a fight to make drivers spend less time on the road,” Curbed, Oct. 24, 2018

California is cutting greenhouse gases, but not from cars. Can that change?“, San Francisco Chronicle, July 16, 2018

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...