Mountain Xpress’ sustainability series served as an excellent reminder that we need to think critically and act conscientiously to address the ongoing climate catastrophe. But it missed an opportunity to discuss our region’s sprawl and car dependency.
According to the Climate and Community Project, transportation is the country’s top source of carbon emissions. And in January, it reported that simply replacing every internal combustion vehicle with an electric one isn’t a solution. Mining lithium for EV batteries is an ecologically destructive activity. Additionally, it demands the continuation of extractivist geopolitical policies that exploit lithium-rich countries in South America.
To fight climate change, we must reduce the “vehicle-miles-traveled” from privately owned automobiles and make alternative modes of transportation more viable. This means rejecting the 1950s-era land use patterns that promote car dependency.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated repeatedly that urban infill and density are key to promoting alternative transportation and in turn reducing carbon emissions and protecting natural carbon sinks — like forests — from sprawl. It affirmed this most recently in its 2023 “synthesis report.”
Furthermore, it happens that the same old land use patterns driving carbon emissions also drive housing unaffordability. In fact, our “exclusionary zoning” codes that mandate sprawl were intentionally designed a century ago to promote segregation and to ensure housing would be scarce enough to be a safe speculative asset for owners.
Given all of this, why is land use reform a dirty concept in Asheville? Last year’s “open space amendment” [avl.mx/coa] debate saw so-called “environmentalists” defending sprawl against a reform promoting infill housing near transit and jobs.
One reason might be found in environmentalism’s history. For men like the famous John Muir, “the environment” represented something opposed to cities and their pollution but also their heterogeneous populations. Environmentalism was an individualistic pursuit. It meant preservation, but not sustainability or justice.
The climate and housing crises together demand that we do what generations of environmentalists have done before us — to question our own biases and received understandings of what is just and what is “green” and to evolve accordingly. (One noted environmentalist doing this work is Bill McKibben, who writes this month in Mother Jones about his own conversion to opposing “NIMBYism.”)
Asheville will soon have the opportunity to evolve its position on land use, as the city is slated to address its zoning code’s “missing middle” [avl.mx/cob]. I hope next year the sustainability series will evolve to address land use, too.
— Andrew Paul
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