California Sues Municipalities for Bad Urban Planning

Using a technique typically used by advocates, California's Attorney General is trying to use lawsuits to persuade local governments to curb sprawl and prevent global warming.

"California is pioneering what could be the next battleground against global warming: filing suit to hold cities and counties accountable for greenhouse gas emissions caused by poorly planned suburban sprawl.

The unprecedented action is being closely watched by states that have taken aggressive steps to combat climate change - including New York, Massachusetts and Washington.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown has sued San Bernardino County, the USA's largest in land area and one of the fastest growing, for failing to account for greenhouse gases when updating its 25-year blueprint for growth."

"If the suit is successful, California cities and counties could be forced to take steps to limit sprawl, promote compact development, require builders to design energy-efficient houses that offer solar power, and encourage less driving, more mass transit and use of alternative fuels."

Thanks to Juliette Michaelson

Full Story: Calif. sees sprawl as warming culprit



What is not bad urban planning?

Like everyone, I agree local governments should produce plans consistent with environmental laws. Early coverage of this suit contrasted the efforts of proactive Marin County with those of head-in-the-sand San Bernardino County. But Marin's plans mainly reflect adaptations to the threat of climate change, by addressing the risk of worsening storm patterns for coastal development in a county surrounded by water on 3 sides.

Landlocked San Bernardino is mainly being blamed for not doing enough to prevent climate change. Fair enough, and pointing out that cars play a big role is fine. How to do this is much less clear. Like it or not, crude efforts to "limit sprawl, promote compact development, and [build] more mass transit" might well produce more rather than fewer greenhouse gases. The academic research and popular press on these issues remain unreliable guides, wishful thinking aside, whenever they suggest the right path is simple or straightforward. I hope the litigation will highlight the need to think hard and well about what will work, not just what people hope will work.

Randall Crane, UCLA Urban Planning

Quoted for Truth

I agree with most of what you are saying. Where I stand on this, I think there should be more thought on what planning processes would actually work, instead of playing blame games or just ignoring the situation entirely. I'm not completely sold on using lawsuits to address this issue however. I would prefer more education and explanation on this and related matters.

Limiting Sprawl Produces More Greenhouse Gases???

I don't see how this can be true:

crude efforts to "limit sprawl, promote compact development, and [build] more mass transit" might well produce more rather than fewer greenhouse gases.

It is well established that people who live in denser cities drive less and (of course) that mass transit emits less CO2 that automobiles per passenger mile.

Can you provide a link where you explain this statement?

(Of course, it depends on what you mean by "crude efforts." If an effort to promote compact development is "crude" enough, it could promote sprawl instead. A development that bills itself as new urbanist but is way beyond the edge of the city obviously could promote more auto use and emisions.)

Charles Siegel

one example

If I may be so bold as to link to myself, here is one example of how high-density TOD can actually increase greenhouse gases. The relationship between land use and transportation is very complex and often counter-intuitive. One development can have great statistics and yet make the city worse off overall because of the people and other land uses it displaces. Very few planning models have the horsepower to predict the CO2 impact of planning decisions and very few jurisdictions even try to use models at all.

Unfortunately, most planning decisions are made using the flimsiest of evidence. Do people who live in denser cities drive less? I really wish it were that simple. There are many different measures of density of cities, and therefore a variety of results. Averaged over an entire metropolitan area, density has a modest but statistically significant effect on per capita VMT, but it's not a very good predictor. The density of a census tract does correlate with the amount of driving, but you must understand self-selection bias before you extrapolate that bit of trivia into planning policies. You can concentrate in high density the people who would have taken transit anyway, but unless you make transit and walking attractive to the families who do most of the driving, they will keep on using their cars.

Europe is full of examples of what a city looks like when people with our standard of living drive less. How to nudge a free market in that direction using nothing but urban planning rules is less clear.

Density of Development vs. Density of City

I think I have seen this study before. It looks at VMT of people living in the high-density development, not at the VMT of the city as a whole.

It makes sense intuitively that, if you have a high-density apartment development in a sprawl-suburb, residents will have high VMT because their trips are to the surrounding sprawl.

However, the VMT generated by the people living in the development is only half the story. To get the whole story, we would also have to look at how these high-density developments affect the VMT of people living in the surrounding neighborhoods. Intuitively, it seems it would lower the surrounding VMT: if people in the surrounding neighborhoods have more destinations nearby (visiting people of stores in the new high-density development), their overall VMT would be less.

From what I have seen, studies of VMT of different density neighborhoods within one metropolitan area show about half as much variation as studies of VMT in different density metropolitan areas. This is just what I would expect from the effect on people in surrounding neighborhoods: half the effect of high density development is on trips by people living in that development, and half is by people traveling to that development. If you looked at both of these effects, I suspect the unexpected results would disappear or at least be reduced.

At any rate, this is an interesting study. It does confirm that, once you get above about 2200 units per sq. kilometer, VMT declines with higher density; in other words, the unexpected findings are only at relatively low densities - which probably means that they only apply to developments surrounded by sprawl. I cannot understand why VMT is lower for townhouses than for apartments at the highest densities.

Charles Siegel

It's possible

I've been following the discussion and there have been good points. Three things seem pretty clear to me about this topic of density and mode choice:

1) density is at least somewhat negatively correlated with auto use

2) that relationship betwen the two is nonlinear and somewhat unclear

3) density is a complex and misunderstood measurement

If you take a typical suburban sprawl environment and add some density, like 6-8 units per acre, instead of 2-4, you will probably just have the same amount of driving in more congested areas thereby increasing traffic and pollution. However, when you get into the really high population and employment densities, you can see a more sudden shift to alternate modes.

Additional complexity arises when you find that suburban portions of urbanized areas increase in density up to a point to where to where driving is miserable, but transit use is impractical. It seems like many of the nation's "suburban downtowns" or edge cities or whatever you call them are like this.

The bottom line from the original comment is that it's very difficult to transform a "sprawl" like environment to a dense, walkable, low driving environment. Building transit alone won't work and neither will all the "good urban planning". Plans won't change behavior, we will need to punish excess commuting with pricing as well as stopping or minimizing subsidizing all forms of development. Other things may help, but without these pricing mechanisms, I see those efforts as futile.

Limiting sprawl does what?

To my way of thinking, the hows and whys of sprawl and travel are not well established at all, a situation made all the more worrisome when both smart planners and even smarter attorney generals passionately believe otherwise. As only one example, Dan Chatman and I have a study, summarized here, indicating job sprawl in particular may well lower commutes, though I wouldn't base any laws on that one paper either.

Many writers do argue that the sprawl/travel connection is fixed and known. Marlon Boarnet and I tried to demonstrate in our 2001 book that, until recently, these studies often have fundamental, undeniable credibility "issues," especially when generalized to anywhere, any time.

These behaviors and their impacts are proving to be more complicated than we'd prefer. I'm certainly not saying we shouldn't use planning to address climate change, only that to avoid making things worse we should do it with our eyes as wide open as our hearts.

Randall Crane, UCLA

Your linked paper summary is

The below was intended as a response to laplante's post:

Your linked paper summary is interesting, but I have the sense that you may be drawing exaggerated conclusions from numerical artifacts. I admit I've read only your linked blog summary rather than your entire paper.

From your blog/paper:
The results are actually quite shocking and show that not only does apartment-based high density do nothing to reduce car use, it actually has the opposite effect. High density does little or nothing to reduce car use of apartment dwellers. Density does, however, improve the picture when it is applied to houses and duplexes.

Again, careful about assigning causality beyond correlation. In any case, the edges of your graph are puzzling. Is it even possible to have "apartments and duplexes" at 1 unit/acre (~250 units/km), or detached single family homes at 64 units/acre (~16000 units/km)? Given that you're drawing conclusions from these edges of the graph, this is pertinent.

Additionally, the graph groups duplexes with apartments, whereas the text groups them with single family homes. Which grouping was used in your analysis? This would obviously have a large impact on the numbers.

My overall sense, again, is that there are oddities in the data relating to outliers or census processing algorithms that are distorting your results.

Density extremes

Yes, I had a slip of the keyboard on the blog entry, I meant "houses and townhouses".

I made those groupings for two reasons. First the graph is easier to read with fewer lines. Second, houses and townhouses have similar lines, but one is scarcer in high density and the other scarcer in low density. Lumped together, there is a reasonable sample at both ends. The results are qualitatively the same with different size geographic units, and with travel measured either with daily trip logs or with annual odometer readings, so it's probably not a numerical artifact. But it is a surprise, so it is worth questioning.

Regarding whether it is possible to have these forms at these densities, this particular graph shows block group density, a census unit containing several hundred housing units, not necessarily all of the same housing form. But because these are unusual cases, the paper does exclude them when drawing conclusions. It also excludes the New York City area, which would otherwise swamp the "and above" points.

However, you can't exclude the low-density single-family house extreme, since that's a significant chunk of your total population and an even bigger chunk of your CO2 emissions. So by the time you multiply it out, strategies that focus on high density and apartments make relatively little difference to the total, but changes that may tend to increase the migration of households from higher-density houses to lower-density ones, as we have seen in the last 50 years, or vice-versa, have a very large effect.

San Bernardino County and Others Should Heed The Wake-up Call

Without a doubt, this litigation will be closely watched by observers nationwide and beyond. One would hope that San Bernardino County will take appropriate and immediate action so that California's Attorney General will see fit to dismiss the lawsuit. This way the litigation will only act as a "wake-up call" so the County can devote its precious and limited resources to studying, promoting and implementing zoning that encourages sustainable growth and development.

David M. Long, Esq.
Smart Growth Development Advisors, LLC

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