Greater density is not the solution

The A Better Cambridge organization is pushing for increased density through more infill housing in Cambridge, saying this is good climate policy and citing a essay published on September 26 on Medium by Jonathan Behrens as justification. The implications of this ABC-promoted article are troubling – and may be based on a misinterpretation of the data.

According to Behrens, “for the infill to help, you need a place that has both less emissions than neighboring wealthy towns and has enough wealthy households who want to settle there.” He claims that, given that Cambridge has “very low household carbon emissions compared to the surrounding area,” a good policy to reduce climate emissions would be to build more infill housing in Cambridge precisely because such housing is likely to be occupied by relatively wealthy people. The idea is that these people would otherwise live more carbon intensive lifestyles in the suburbs. His proposed approach would lead to a richer Cambridge community with more price pressure chasing low-income people.

It is clearly a terrible policy from an affordable housing and equity perspective. This is consistent with A Better Cambridge’s support for the Missing Middle proposal, which would have fostered the development of new housing primarily for wealthy homeowners, but is certainly not what is needed for equity in Cambridge!

But is his argument correct regarding high income people living in cities rather than the suburbs? Would making Cambridge a paradise for even better-off homeowners really be a climate plus? Behrens’ argument is based primarily on a recommendation from a California study for more infill housing in San Francisco. But San Francisco, while similar to Cambridge in terms of average income and density, is very different in other ways. For San Francisco, the main alternative to city life would probably be a ride from a fairly remote suburb. For Cambridge, the primary alternate location would likely be another inner suburb such as Belmont or Newton – and according to the data card presented by Behrens, those other inner suburbs have very similar carbon footprints to Cambridge. It’s the outer suburbs (near the Interstate 495 belt) that typically have a higher carbon footprint, and it probably wouldn’t be the location of choice for more affluent homeowners.

Additionally, the construction of infill housing in Cambridge often results in a loss of canopy and open spaces, which we know is negative for the climate as well as other ecological issues such as water uptake. , which is relevant for climate resilience.

Another flaw in Behrens’ argument is his assumption that Cambridge has a “strong public transport infrastructure” and presumably that the new affluent owners he wishes would use public transport rather than drive cars. It is very debatable. Anyone who uses public transport in Cambridge (especially buses) is aware that the system is underfunded and often unreliable, and that users are mostly from the working class rather than the well-to-do.

Contrary to Behrens’ description of Cambridge as “a wealthy suburb of the inner ring of Boston,” Cambridge is not a uniformly wealthy city. We have a large low-income population many of whom are struggling to sustain themselves in a real estate market under pressure from over-development (eg, replacing existing rental units with new condos for the wealthy). People with higher incomes usually have cars (often two per household), and the increase in traffic on the streets of Cambridge that has accompanied excessive development is very noticeable. Even more development probably means more cars, more congestion, and a lot of carbon emissions from frustrated drivers sitting in traffic.

So let’s not rush to destroy open spaces and the canopy of trees to build homes for the rich. Cambridge is already one of the densest cities in Massachusetts and the country. Cambridge needs more carefully planned development aimed at affordability and equity and including green design and the preservation of open spaces, not the business and developer driven model that we now see which is bad at both for the climate and for equity.

Jonathan harris, Avenue Marie


Jonathan Harris is a Visiting Fellow at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.

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