The green choices we can make come in two basic types: the personal and the political. Some personal choices can make a big difference — forsaking meat, for instance. But other personal "green" decisions bring marginal or dubious benefits. How much, for instance, did buying the "sustainably harvested" bamboo pen cup that sits on my desk really do to reduce my carbon footprint? (I doubt it helped much, but the dappled grove on its packaging sure looked pretty.)
If only the policy options that could do the most to stem global warming came similarly wrapped. Unfortunately, many of the most effective policies to fight global warming sometimes come labeled instead with dirty little words. Words like "tax." No single measure would be more effective in controlling the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions than a well-implemented carbon tax, but there's no chance the policy will be adopted in America any time soon — partly because of our aversion to that three-letter word.
In Asheville, there's a different ugly word attached to the policies that could do the most to reduce our per capita carbon footprint. But here the word is a long one: development. Actually, it's more of a phrase: high-density, inner-city development.
There's nothing City Council could do to reduce our carbon footprints more than aggressively seeking to increase density — especially by encouraging development in and near downtown. Study after study from environmental groups and left-leaning think tanks, such as the Sierra Club and the Brookings Institution, have shown that sprawling suburban development patterns place a much heavier toll on the environment than intensive urban development.
The denser the neighborhood, these studies have found, the lower the carbon footprint. Apartments tend to be much smaller than detached single-family houses on half-acre suburban lots, and with lower ratios of exterior walls they are more efficient to heat and cool. What's more, apartments benefit from the heat produced in the apartments below them during the winter and from the air-conditioning produced in apartments above them during the summer.
Residents of dense neighborhoods also drive much less, both because their larger numbers are better able to support mass transit and because they live closer to jobs, schools, stores and services. Studies conducted by John Holtzclaw for the Sierra Club, for instance, have shown that residents of any given Bay Area neighborhood drive 20 to 30 percent fewer miles than those living in neighborhoods in the same region that are half as dense — and the trend holds for all income levels. Holtzclaw found similar, if slightly smaller, effects when he crunched the data for metropolitan Chicago and Los Angeles.
The smart-growth movement that emerged in the 1990s married these environmental arguments for dense, walkable and transit-oriented cities with fiscal arguments about the greater efficiency that density of this kind brings. More intensive development, after all, also means that fewer miles of pipe have to be laid to supply the same number of water customers and that fewer miles of roadway have to be maintained for the same population.
And to its credit, Asheville's Planning Department has adopted smart growth as its guiding philosophy. The development aims outlined in its 2025 Plan — including greater walkability and higher density, especially downtown and along transit corridors — are good ones. But Asheville's citizens haven't wholeheartedly embraced them.
My inner NIMBY
Part of the problem lies simply in the nature of people. We're not inclined to mess with a good thing. We like our city and our neighborhoods, so why risk changing them? Instead of a movement, the not-in-my-backyard phenomenon is more like an instinct — one that I certainly share.
When a developer wanted to put multifamily housing in the middle of my block in West Asheville a few years ago, I grew alarmed. The original plans called for a hideous building with unpunctuated expanses of vinyl siding on two sides. Various neighbors, including myself, spoke against the project at the Planning and Zoning Commission, where it was turned down.
The planning department then urged the developer to adopt various changes that would make the building a better fit for the neighborhood, and when it came to Council, where I didn't speak against it, it passed. But in total truthfulness, after P&Z turned the project down, one side of me simply wanted the project to go away.
The NIMBY instinct can have a big impact on Council votes. Back in 2003, surfing the Web one night, I compared recent Council votes on development issues to precinct results from Council elections. What I found was that Council members tended to vote against development in the precincts where they polled best. And the trend held at both ends of the political spectrum: For instance, Brian Peterson, a progressive who got a lot of votes in Montford and Hillside, voted against high-density neighborhood-corridor zoning for Broadway. On the other hand, conservative Joe Dunn, who did well in east and south Asheville, voted against controversial projects in Chunn's Cove and Oakley.
In extreme cases, populist politicians or candidates can go so far in pandering to this NIMBY instinct that they try to deny the underlying truths of smart growth.
Chasing at windmills?
Incoming Council member Cecil Bothwell, for instance, once spoke against building any structure tall enough to require an elevator because of the electricity they consume. (In fact, the power consumed by elevators is pretty negligible.) He also described the goal of increasing the tax base as "a quixotic adventure that has no provable benefit to current residents." Excuse me, I thought when I read that, but my family and I regularly benefit from the extra local funding provided to the city schools, from evening bus service and from recent improvements to parks. None of these would have been possible to the same extent without the fiscal efficiencies gained from the city's smart-growth approach to increasing the tax base.
Much to his credit, Bothwell underwent a transformation when he campaigned in the general election, going so far as to say that Asheville should use Manhattan as a model for reducing its energy consumption. He noted correctly that the borough's residents have the lowest carbon footprints in the nation.
So how can Bothwell and his colleagues on Council make Asheville's per-capita carbon footprint more like Manhattan's? Here are a few ideas:
• Develop guidelines for attractive small apartment buildings — like the kind that are dotted throughout older neighborhoods in north and West Asheville. Then allow them to be built anywhere within a quarter mile of a bus route — even in places now zoned as single-family residential.
• The high-density, mixed-use, shop-window-to-the-sidewalk zoning that has been adopted or considered for transit corridors like Merrimon, Haywood and Broadway is a good idea: Apply it in more places. But bump up the number of allowable floors that developers can build to at least six in all its iterations.
• If an opportunity arises to put intensive development on a site near downtown like the former Deal Auto site, grab it. And if neighborhood residents aren't uncomfortable with the size of the buildings you've allowed, then the buildings probably aren't big enough.
Taking these steps will indeed make Asheville more like Manhattan, Cecil, and bring down per-capita energy consumption. But doing so will also undoubtedly alienate some of your constituents. Such is the nature of your job.
[Longtime Xpress contributor Jonathan Barnard can be reached at email@example.com.]