By Beth Hartman
It is important to build more efficient, electric housing in dense, walkable, mixed use, affordable urban areas. This is also beneficial for the climate crisis and human happiness. Boulder needs progressive leaders who support other efforts to reduce carbon emissions and improve human well-being. They need to see that housing in dense urban centers is an essential component of achieving our goals. Progressives who oppose additional housing in cities are not living up to the values they claim.
Reduction of emissions
Because people can live in more energy-efficient buildings, in places that allow them to travel without a car to work, school, recreation, or entertainment, dense, walkable, mixed use, affordable neighborhoods reduce their carbon emissions. This reduces both mobility and buildings’ emissions. Dense, walkable, diverse, and vibrant cities are more environmentally friendly than sprawling, unplanned, sprawling housing.
New research from the University of Colorado and others shows that the optimal urban form for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is cities like Paris, which are dense but do not contain too many large skyscrapers. Supporting research from the University of Michigan found that doubling urban density could reduce carbon emissions from travel by nearly 50% and emissions from buildings by almost a third.
Human happiness and health
Vibrant, diverse cities are better for the planet and for people. Imagine the most beautiful and enjoyable places you have ever visited. Perhaps a European or Asian city with narrow streets and sidewalk cafes, parks and plazas. People are everywhere on bikes, walking or riding their bikes, or traveling in electric trolleys and trains. Imagine instead some of the most desolating developments humans have made, with miles and miles worth of roads running between indistinguishable subdivisions, strip malls, cars everywhere, and people walking and biking at risk.
In addition to reducing physical risks from vehicles and encouraging more exercise, more dense walkable neighborhoods are also better for human health from an air quality perspective. When it comes to outdoor air quality, research from the World Health Organization estimates that 7 million people globally die prematurely from air pollution. Millions of lives can be saved by reducing air pollution from vehicles and buildings. We should also look at how electric buildings can be more efficient and improve indoor air quality. This is by eliminating fossil fuels in buildings. Research shows that homes with gas stoves create a 42% increased risk of asthma for children. We all deserve cleaner indoors and outdoors air.
The urgency to build more housing in dense urban centers as the climate crisis worsens is increasing. Millions of homes are already at risk in areas that are vulnerable to flooding, fires, and severe storms. Rather than continuing to rebuild in risky geographies, we should allow more of the natural environment to regenerate, while building more homes for humans within increasingly modernized and reimagined cities that mimic the resilience of nature — different versions of Black Panther’s Wakanda in many places around the world.
These homes can be built to reduce emissions. Floor plans maximize space, use efficient electric appliances, daylighting, passive heating and cooling, and floor plans maximize space. We can also increase resilience by incorporating more local renewable power generation and storage on-site, creating microgrids which support communities even when the larger power system is disrupted. We can also add more mobility options, such as electric bikes, scooters and trains, to increase density. This will allow us to reclaim so much space that was previously devoted to cars, and allows us to continue outdoor dining and recreation, which we recently discovered to be some of our greatest joys.
We must create vibrant, sustainable cities for all people, both for the planet and for our own sake. Globally, progressive cities should ensure that high urban housing density is part of their strategy to address the climate crisis and improve people’s health and happiness.
Beth Hartman is a Boulder resident