Letter to Ramez Naam – Cofessions of an Urbanist

Hi Ramez

Thanks for the lecture last night in AP’s class. It was definitely the most informative session on climate change I have ever attended. I’d love it if you could send me the slides.

As I was leaving I have to admit I was feeling a bit disoriented. I’m a Master of Urban Planning student. I like compact cities, active transportation, walkable environments, free-market land use, subsidized mass transit. I’m also a white millennial who grew up on Vashon Island and I can’t help loving things that are hand-made and sustainably sourced. I lived in Paraguay in the countryside for two years and I really love certain bits of technology – refrigeration, the internet, stereos and buses are nice – but find a lot of our American lifestyle overburdened with superfluous junk. It means we have to work all the time to afford to buy everything we think we need and it creates distance between us.

I’ve looked at climate sustainability as the underlying justification for my intended career in urban planning as well as my lifestyle habits and choices. In a world of carbon pricing we would need to learn to live more cheaply, closer together, locally, throw away a little less, share a little more. Excess would be less of a birthright, solo driving in cars would not be considered the default mode of transportation and we would not devote so much of our land to freeways, subdivisions and golf courses. All my fantasies for how I would like to see society transform were basically justified in service of reducing carbon emissions.

Your lecture and the defeat of I-732 (I gathered several hundred signatures and canvased for the initiative) really seem to collapse that fantasy. I agree with most everything you said and you obviously have data to back it up. I was excited by the drop in solar prices, but I was dispirited when I realized it meant we’re probably not going to learn how to live better with less and instead just make excess more sustainable and cheap. If electric cars become cheaper and more popular than internal-combustion cars, vehicle miles driven will continue to increase, with freeways, gridlock, low-density suburbs, traffic violence, toxic storm-water runoff, parking minimums as ubiquitous as ever.

It does make sense to me how conservatives would automatically oppose climate action as it has been identified with things that liberals like us like. Especially as it has become identified with the things that urbanists like me really like, such as mass transit and apartments. It has always bothered me that so many liberals seem fine with smug actions to seemingly wash their own hands of climate change without structurally changing anything. I do it too. The more I am comfortable living without a car, the more a carbon tax would actually benefit me at the expense of the person who drives a big truck because it is identified with their way of life. Of course conservatives are going to oppose a tax that is levied on their way of life.

So, I want to thank you for coming in and for your excellent lecture and for the work you did during the I-732 campaign. I remember listening to the Stranger podcast where you debated someone from Sage or Got Green and just nailed it. I was in Denmark at the time and followed the campaign a little bit obsessively. It seemed so good and rational and a way to push society to transform in the ways I’d like. I suppose I also ought to thank you for pouring some cold water on the selfish vision that my ideal world is also the world as it should be to reduce climate change. That’s how it always goes with grand visions. I can still justify low-car living on the grounds of health, safety, economy, and local environmental impacts, at least.

Now, what do we do about Naomi Klein?

best,

Ian Crozier
Master of Urban Planning | Class of 2017
University of Washington

Carbon WA after 732

Last Wednesday night I drank beer with Kyle Murphy, the new Executive Director of CarbonWA. CarbonWA is the environmental organization which wrote and lead the campaign for Initiatve 732 in the 2016 election – which lost by 18 points, 41% to 59%. We discussed that election, the national political moment, the prominent role Washington state has been playing in national politics by resisting the Trump administration, and the future of Carbon WA.

The results of the election were deeply disappointing to supporters of I-732. The initiative was a revenue-neutral carbon tax, designed to financially reward consumers and producers for making low-carbon choices and to mitigate financial impacts by reducing other taxes in equal measure and funding a tax-credit for low-income families. With Washington state having the most regressive tax code in the country this element of I-732 was very important to me. Efficient as a carbon tax is, all else being equal it falls most heavily on the poor.

The initiative was crafted to have bipartisan appeal by making our economy more environmentally sustainable without raising taxes overall. Instead it was attacked from both the left and the right, with prominent environmental, social, and labor organizations endorsing a no vote and winning support from few prominent Republicans or business organizations.

CarbonWA has downsized since the election. Murphy and remaining board-members are looking for the ways the organization can be most helpful in the coming years. It is possible that a carbon-tax initiative could be placed on the ballot in 2018, but relatively low Democratic turnout during mid-term elections could put such an effort at a structural disadvantage. We discussed smaller-scale actions the organization could take, with targeted ballot initiatives, state-level lobbying, or local organizing. The ballot initiatives that passed in 2016: raising the minimum wage, temporary limits on gun access for the mentally disturbed, protections for care-givers to the elderly, toothless opposition to the Citizens United ruling – all deal in a narrow way with a popular issue. 732 on the other hand was broad and sober in its attempt to remake the economy and focused mostly on the negatives – the negative effects of carbon pollution and taxation, while negating also tax revenue. In the future CarbonWA could try to identify a more narrowly defined but popular issue and to craft ballot language that would still make an impact on carbon pollution: a tax or ban on the coal- or oil-trains which frequently pass through our state, for instance, or a “clawback” of federal subsidies for fossil fuels.

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Oil train near King County Airport

It is challenging to identify a politically popular climate-change measure that would have a significant impact on the problem, however. Burning fossil fuels for energy is deeply embedded in the way we have built our society – it affects nearly everything about how we go about our daily lives. The problem is with us, and scapegoating unpopular actors or obscure practices is simply going to delay the difficult transition that we will have to start making if we are going attempt to reduce climate disruption in a substantive way.

It is very likely that a carbon-tax will be on the ballot in 2020, either sponsored by CarbonWA or a coalition of environmental groups. That ballot measure should preserve the best parts of 732, the low-income tax credit and statewide sales tax reduction that reduce the regressivity of our tax code. However, it should abandon strict revenue neutrality – this failed to win many Republican votes and was unpopular among Democrats. It could front-load subsidies for energy retrofits and job-training and delay the imposition of the tax by several years. These could be paid for on credit by future positive tax revenues and would give those negatively affected by the change time to make changes to reduce their costs. Ideally such a measure could pass in a state where our legislature will have finally achieved an agreement to adequately fund education, taking the pressure of any potential tax to compensate for an unrelated budget hole.

In the early months of the Trump administration our state is taking on a higher profile role in progressive government than it has traditionally played by standing up for immigrants and refugees.  In fact, this role builds on recent Cascadian leadership in marijuana legalization and marriage equality, and is buttressed by our states’ economic strength in technology and international trade. I am hopeful that our state will rise to the challenge of leading the way in dealing with climate change in a serious and just approach.

The Remarkably Good Urban Design of UW’s New Dorms

In the past decade the University of Washington has undertaken a major building campaign to replace aging dormitories on the west side of campus, building seven new dorms around Campus Parkway and 12th Avenue. These buildings have positively contributed to the urban environment of the neighborhood in several ways: they have increased the residential capacity of west campus from 3,000 to 5,000 beds, improved the quality of public and private open spaces, and provided a blueprint for sustainable, compact urban form. 

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UW West Campus

The new dorms were principally designed by two firms, Mahlum and Mithun but many characteristics are shared by the whole group. They are 6-7 stories tall, use linear forms to create well-defined streetscapes and courtyards, and include ground-level spaces for retail and student support services. Surface parking lots have been removed or replaced by underground lots, improving the quality of the open areas and the capacity of the built areas. They all generally have a classy, restrained use of materials that is neither distracting nor off-putting.

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Mercer Court

These project address concerns about the poor quality of the urban grain of many new developments expressed by Liz Dunn and which have caused significant backlash against new development in Seattle. Although these dorms each have a fairly large footprint, their design works to increase the density of unique places within each building and between the buildings. They do this by differentiating parts of the buildings and open spaces based on their use, relationship to surrounding elements and grade changes of the sites.

Because they have nearly doubled the housing capacity of west campus these projects also address Glaeser’s concern about housing scarcity, although it is pretty likely that he would heave preferred that these buildings be taller. Most of the new dorms rise to the maximum 65 feet allowed in the zoning, however Poplar Hall, Elm Hall, and the Cedar Apartments north of Campus Parkway are zoned for 105 foot height limits, meaning that for some reason the university chose not to built to the maximum allowed height.

The high-quality urban design of these projects encourages students to walk and socialize outside, with positive health and social outcomes for the community. It also encourages active transportation and use of transit. More broadly, the new dorms epitomize the ideal of compact urban growth, with lively social activity, efficient transportation and building, and dense but livable neighborhoods.

The university’s ability to realize such a vision is probably the result of its unique situation with large financial and land resources and influence at city hall, a fact that may urge caution against using the west campus expansion as a model for the rest of the city to follow. Still, as noted in chapter 1 of The Carbon Efficient City, universities are excellent testing grounds for sustainable practices, and the bifurcation of capital and operational funding streams gives these institutions a strong interest in investing in high-quality buildings that will save money in energy and transportation costs over time. Hopefully the experience gained by the builders, designers and residents of these projects will shape understandings of what good urban form looks like how to achieve it over a greater part of our city in the future.

 

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12th Avenue plaza between Terry (pictured) and Maple Hall