Achieving Our Climate Goals: The Land Use-Transportation Nexus
Welcome to The Sustainable City Podcast. This month, we talk to Rushad Nanavatty, Managing Director and lead of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Urban Transformation program, and Ben Holland, Senior Associate and Policy Liaison at RMI. Join us as we explore the connection between transportation and land use, and how each affects our ability to achieve our climate goals, from commuting to street design to electric vehicles.
William Shutkin: Welcome to The Sustainable City Show, a new podcast where we discuss bold ideas and innovations for green, equitable, and climate-friendly cities with the people making them happen. For today’s show, we’re exploring the connection between transportation and land use and how each affects our ability to achieve our climate goals, from commuting to street design to electric vehicles.
One of our guests today is Ben Holland, a senior associate and policy liaison on Rocky Mountain Institute’s Urban Transformation team. Ben is focused on land use and urban mobility solutions to reduce transportation emissions. He is forming a coalition of urban planners, transportation experts, and climate advocates to integrate smart growth and urbanist principles into global climate policy. Prior to RMI, Ben was the director of deployment strategy and policy for Securing America’s Future Energy, SAFE. At SAFE, Ben crafted electric vehicle policy and led the organization’s deployment community project in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Our other guest is Rushad Nanavatty. He leads RMI’s Urban Transformation program. That program is focused on helping cities around the world simultaneously reduce emissions, enhance urban livability, increase resilience and advance social equity. Prior to joining RMI, Rushad served as the founding COO of WeGen Energy, a startup developing off-grid energy solutions and virtual power plants in the Philippines and Vietnam, utilizing a mix of distributed solar and battery energy storage. Before WeGen, Rushad spent six years at McKinsey & Company as a member of the firm’s sustainability, infrastructure, and private equity practices, working on projects across Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Rushad has a master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and a bachelor’s degree from St. Stephens College at the University of Delhi.
Andy Bush: I’ll start it off. I think the intent here is to be as conversational as possible. So don’t feel the need to answer every question, and we’ll kind of go back and forth, but I think as we’ve proven a few times, we’ll talk over each other on some of the different ideas and thoughts. I’ll start with a few questions — just kind of throw some things out that are, if anything, more statements than questions. And the first one is, isn’t it just a zoning issue, right? Can’t we zone our way out of this, Rushad?
Rushad Nanavatty: Zoning’s a big part of it, but I think there are several problems and associated solutions. Zoning’s one. The way we price our transportation systems, specifically how we price driving, or the lack of pricing, is another huge one. The fact is we don’t pay the cost of our vehicle use as a society as individuals. There are a whole bunch of adjacent policies that influence the way our cities are laid out, including things as perhaps unlikely to some people as the home mortgage interest rate deduction that heavily subsidizes the ownership of detached single-family homes, the way we fund our schools, our infrastructure biases, and our bias towards sort of building highways is another one.
When we think of infrastructure, we automatically think of roads and we think of building more of them. And the way we allocate our street space, it’s kind of crazy when you think about the sheer volume of really, really high-value urban real estate that we dedicate to cars instead of people. It’s hard to put sort of specific figures on it, but when you look across the country, in most cities or the average across cities is probably north of a quarter, north of 25 percent of that urban land. So lots and lots of issues, but certainly zoning regulations are a huge one, very close to the top of the list.
Andy Bush: Yeah. And I think when you look at, talking about pricing — we’ll get into it in more detail — but it’s cars or mobility and land use. And I think, Ben, I don’t know if it was you and I who were talking about it, but Austin’s kind of an interesting city in that they didn’t take federal highway dollars for a long, long time, which created terrible commuting. But I think was part of what led to kind of an interesting downtown and people wanting to live there because they decided to forego the commute.
Ben Holland: Yeah. So Austin’s an interesting example. We might talk about this in a little bit, but they’re facing a pretty difficult situation right now because they haven’t updated their Land Development Code in over 30 years. And so it’s been kind of a longstanding saga down in the city to find a way to reform zoning, to allow more infill development, and more density along the key transit corridors there. I think you’re right. I mean, certain qualities of the planning go back to the early 1800s that have made Austin a great place to visit and to live. But as we’ll talk about later in this conversation, I think it’s a great example of how cities are going to need to evolve over time to accommodate people in the places where it makes the most sense economically, socially, and environmentally.
William Shutkin: Hey Rushad, you mentioned several key factors in this land use transportation puzzle. Do you think there is in fact a key leverage point to change the way Americans move about and to try to close the gap between vehicle miles traveled and the kinds of emissions reductions we need to achieve to meet the climate goals that we’ve recently set out?
Rushad Nanavatty: Well, I think the first thing I maybe note is that it’s absolutely critical to reduce vehicle miles traveled, which I don’t think a lot of people or enough people in the climate action community fully appreciate. And Ben can speak more to the math here, but for the math that RMI has done, we need to get 70 million EVs on the road by 2050 to be vaguely aligned with a 1.5 degree Celsius sort of climate pathway. But at the same time, in order for that alignment to occur, it happens, we need to reduce vehicle miles traveled by 20 percent. And we’re more successful on one, we can be a little bit less successful on the other and vice versa. But actually sort of embedded in your statement was just a point that I think it’s really important to recognize and emphasize.
With respect to the key intervention, RMI — more specifically Amory Lovins — has always used this phrase, we’re not going to solve the climate crisis with a silver bullet. It’s a problem that requires the use of silver buckshot. And there are certainly some pieces of buckshot that are bigger and more important than others, but we are going to need to do several things. We’re going to need to stop the bleeding, stop sort of perpetuating these incredibly destructive patterns of urban development by changing our land use practices and our zoning. We are going to need to price road space, the use of vehicles, much, much more rationally. We’re going to have to shift away from a bias towards building and expanding roads to a bias towards supporting non-motorized transportation and public transit. And we’re going to need to reallocate a lot of the street space that we’ve given over to cars. So when I refer to sort of silver buckshot those are… I would submit some of the more sort of important pieces of buckshot that we need to think about.
William Shutkin: Can you follow up a bit on that point, and maybe Ben, you can take this question. Rushad mentioned the fact that VMT, vehicle miles traveled, has not really been a key part of the conversation among climate activists, climate advocates for some time, although VMT as a concept has been around for decades. Is there a reason that we haven’t sort of led with VMT and commuting patterns in this conversation today?
Ben Holland: I think if you look at the typical climate model or climate action plan, when discussing transportation emissions or strategies for reducing those emissions, almost all of them will focus entirely on electrification to get to that goal. And I think that’s due in large part to the fact that the climate community as a whole — we’ve been a big part of this — has over a decade really focused on sort of market-driven sort of technologically oriented solutions because the idea being that they could scale faster than policy. And there’s certainly an argument for that and we’re doing everything we can to support the growth of the electric vehicle market. Actually, speaking of Amory, we’re kind of taking a step back and thinking about things in terms of efficiency or the whole system of the transportation sector — something that we hadn’t done a whole lot of until recently.
So you’re starting to see the community as a whole sort of embracing VMT reduction. So the California Air Resources Board recently put out a goal of reducing VMT by 15 percent. You’re starting to see a number of other climate action plans, including that. Because we’ve got about a little less than two million EVs on the road today. We need 70 million by 2030. I think it’s reasonable to assume that we might fall short of that, excluding any major policies that could shift behavior. So that VMT reduction piece becomes even more important.
Andy Bush: I have a question for you, either or both. I mean, prices sometimes teach us things and I feel like COVID taught us that if people in the future work from home two days a week, we reduce their commuting time by maybe 40 percent, and we’ve got Amazon who’s delivering more and more things to us, ideally with electric vehicles. Did we just get a vision of the future as part of COVID that maybe won’t last and there’s obviously reversion to the mean, but sometimes I feel like it’s accelerated things that are already on the way.
Rushad Nanavatty: Yeah. I think there’s definitely something to that if you were to extend… Just to kind of refine on Ben’s efficiency logic. Again, to borrow our founder’s language, people don’t necessarily want a water heater or a refrigerator, what they want are hot showers and cold beer. And if you were to extend that logic to the transportation system or to our cities, people want to get to the places they need to get to as conveniently, quickly, comfortably as they possibly can. They don’t necessarily want to be doing it in a certain mode of transportation. It’s complicated a little bit in American in particular, because —
William Shutkin: Given our current culture, Rushad, right?
Rushad Nanavatty: Yeah. It’s an issue, but that’s not a universal issue. Not everybody loves their cars to the point that they wouldn’t want to live without alternatives. There’s both something really, really important about recognizing that deep efficiency logic that RMI has always sort of preached, but also in recognizing its limitations. And just to maybe elaborate on what Ben was saying previously, I think reducing VMT has always been regarded as just it’s too hard. It’s too political, too local, too complex, too slow, too messy, requires too much sort of complex stakeholder engagement, and you’re leading with a policy and a regulatory solution, as opposed as Ben pointed out, a technology and market-driven one, and we’ve always found it difficult to get people to fully appreciate the potential for deep energy efficiency, because it’s the energy you don’t use.
In this case, it’s the driving that you don’t do. It’s much, much easier to visualize for people — to imagine a future that involves a thing and doing stuff as opposed to the absence of the thing and absence of doing stuff. So I think that’s one of the challenges. When you go to a climate philanthropist and start talking about VMT reduction that doesn’t conjure up necessarily an image in your head. When you go and talk to them about EVs, you know what a Tesla looks like. And so there’s a communication challenge wrapped up in here as well.
Andy Bush: Yeah. 20 years ago I worked on a project where we were going to create a library without walls in a downtown. And the hard part was raising money for it because everyone thought library without walls, I guess it’s free. So it was tough to get donors and tough to get share of mind for that kind of thing. When you say urban transformation, what are the range of things that — some of them are soft, some of them are hard — That the two of you talk about or think about?
Rushad Nanavatty: Ben, you want to take that one? You want me to…
Ben Holland: So you want to talk about the overall program?
Andy Bush: Yeah. And just when the two of you, the reason you kind of put those words on it, what does urban transformation mean when you think 50 or 100 years in your mind?
William Shutkin: And to RMI given your institutional affiliation and strategy.
Rushad Nanavatty: So we didn’t have a dedicated city or Urban Transformation program until less than two years ago, closer to one year ago. And the logic was pretty simple. One, cities are 70 percent of global emissions and rising as the world urbanizes. Energy is 70 percent of the climate problem. And as an institute, we have this really deep techno-economic expertise across all the major energy-producing consuming sectors, mobility/transportation, buildings, power way, industry. And even more importantly, we’ve always prided ourselves as being whole systems thinkers. And what is a city except just a system of multiple systems. There’s huge potential for those systems to be interacting more synergistically. And for those systems are fast to be exploiting potential for deep efficiency, systemic efficiency between those systems. The other thing I think has become increasingly apparent is that goals and commitments aren’t the same thing as action and progress.
And there have been over the last several years a lot of cities making really, really ambitious commitments. But when you look at the data — Brookings did a pretty interesting analysis on this — of the 100 larger cities in America, only I think 12 were on track to meet their greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. So a huge gap between commitments and goal setting on the one hand and action and implementation on the other. And so this program was founded on the logic of helping cities bridge that gap between commitment and action. So it’s a program that’s heavily focused on delivery of technical assistance and capacity building. One of the things that we recognize, and this is where Ben’s work comes in, is that there are some really, really big gaps when it comes to how cities are thinking about climate action. One of which is that most climate action plans, they might be really robust, sophisticated documents, but they focus on existing emissions use that come, or produced within, or are based on energy used within a city’s boundaries.
And that’s an issue because cities don’t exist in a vacuum. The actions that you take within municipal boundaries have a profound effect on what happens outside of those municipal boundaries and transportation and land uses like exhibit A with that. So cities don’t, for example — they think about population distribution as something that’s completely exogenous, something they can’t affect, but it is something that they affect with things like their zoning and land use policy. So that’s just one example. And one of the things that we’re trying to do as a program is address or help cities address some of those blind spots.
William Shutkin: So well said.
Ben Holland: I would just add that one of our hypotheses is that the policymakers really lack a defensible argument for a range of interventions that would get us to those targets and even lack the sort of awareness of which ones would be the most effective. So Rushad mentioned these earlier, but we’re really trying to put numbers behind what we think is possible with each of the interventions, whether it’s infill development, street redesign, or fighting highway expansions. Well, that’s the central piece of work that we’re doing with the University of Colorado right now.
William Shutkin: Thanks, Ben.
Andy Bush: Can you talk a little bit more about kind of the land use side of things and how we need to shift land use policy and intensify certain areas and understand that it’s deeply political at some level too.
William Shutkin: Can I just layer on to Andy’s question with a couple of things that I think Rushad brought up? Just these gaps that in some ways are unique to America, to the extent that Americans might or might not be agnostic about how they get to and from their mobility options. And I’m not sure they are agnostic. We all (myself included) enjoy our single-passenger vehicles most of the time. But to the extent, A: we make it really difficult for Americans even to have a choice, Americans who do not live in denser downtown settings with easy access to transit, let alone to walking and biking infrastructure, it’s essentially not an option. Plus we have the challenge of last-mile and the lack of true 15-minute neighborhoods. So, one, is there some low-hanging fruit where we can at least start to create some options, which kind of goes to the big infrastructure bill and three and a half-trillion-dollar spending plan that the Democrats have?
And two, on the land use side, what has it been? And Rushad, something like 75 percent of U.S. residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family dwelling units. And so on the housing side, we’ve got this sort of monolithic, single-family zoning structure that maybe if we just chopped 10 percent of that 75 percent off, we could start to create that kind of infill and mixed-use and the density, if you will, that allows those transit options suddenly to surface. So how do we start to close the gap, going back to Andy’s point — these sort of larger land use interventions when we’re really starting from such a baseline level right of sophistication.
Ben Holland: Take single-family zoning, as you mentioned, that is only just now becoming a more, I guess, mainstream discussion in climate discussions, or even just in land use reform in cities around the U.S., as you’ve mentioned. Well, many cities across the U.S. have well over 70 percent of their land mass zoned as single-family. We are really targeting that and actually through a series case studies and analyses, trying to determine what the potential is for reducing VMT through that land use reform. So we’re going to be here in the next couple months, we’re going to be publishing case studies on the city of Austin, Charlotte, and Denver. And for all three of those cities, we see a significant potential upwards of 20 percent VMT reduction potential just through really thoughtful, smart land use reform, putting a development where it’s most needed on transit corridors and enabling people to walk to critical amenities or critical services.
One of the things that we’re really looking at is what are series of policies that would reduce the amount of driving necessary just by increasing the access to not just places of employment, but for instance, grocery stores. Taking Austin, again, as an example, only 28 percent of the city really has access to a grocery store within a 10-minute walk. 44 percent has access, I think, within a 20-minute walk. So the point being that there’s a significant amount of opportunity to, as you said, kind of create 15-minute neighborhoods of which I think access to food would be one of the core —
William Shutkin: So no technology required. These are sort of paper, policy changes. So politics will require, but there’s no battery storage or autopilot Tesla.
Ben Holland: Well, there are some cities that would —
Andy Bush: I’ll jump in and play devil’s advocate a little bit in that even though I don’t agree with this. Isn’t Amazon going to deliver most of what we shop for 20 years from now? I mean, I’m in the business of creating neighborhoods, but isn’t the nature of neighborhood going to change here over the next 10 or 15 years? Is it changing already?
William Shutkin: Transformation.
Rushad Nanavatty: I guess my counter to that devil’s advocate argument would be, let’s say that holds true for grocery stores. And I would question whether it does, because we’ve seen the rise of Amazon certainly, and the acquisition of Whole Foods, but at the same time, we’ve seen the rise of farmers’ markets. So clearly consumers quite often want more than one thing. But anyway, there is no question that, yes, urban form is going to change in response to technology, but there are also some basic human needs, like the need for human interaction, which can be supported by public spaces that is never going to disappear, at least not in kind of an evolutionary time timeframe. A lot of what we’re talking about has validity, but William, I wanted to come back to the point that you made earlier.
For a lot of people right now, anything but a single-occupancy vehicle is not an option. The trouble with our land use and transportation planning practices — a lot of them — is that we’re perpetuating that, we’re exacerbating it. Like vehicle miles traveled on a per capita basis have actually increased by something like 150 percent over the course of the last 45 years. So we’re making the situation worse. We’re giving fewer and fewer people the alternative and the option to use something other than a single-occupancy vehicle, even if they would like to have those options.
I think one thing that I would want to emphasize, and with respect to stuff that can have an impact, as Ben pointed to the potential of upzoning, that’s by the way supported by other research. And one prominent example is the work that Chris Jones and his group have been doing at UC Berkeley, where they found that the number one policy lever available to a lot of local governments in California, was to reform land use practices and zoning practices to allow urban infill, basically building in low carbon footprint locations within a city instead of that housing being built elsewhere, where we have a much, much higher carbon footprint.
So part of this, again — I used this phrase earlier — is about stopping the bleeding, stopping to continue to follow these destructive patterns of urban development. You mentioned transit. Transit only really works well when not only do you invest in it, but when you physically prioritize it in terms of how you allocate public space. Think of how grossly inequitable it is right now that someone who is sitting in a bus occupying a tiny fraction of the road space that say someone sitting in a Cadillac Escalade is, is effectively moving at the same speed. If we want that bus to be a more popular option, we need to give that bus privileged access on our roads. And cities are starving increasingly to do this, but we need to do it almost I would argue universally on city streets as opposed to restrict things like dedicated bus lanes or lower emission zones to just certain segments of the city.
William Shutkin: Yeah. Well, and Rushad, those are good points. Makes total sense to me, especially the leverage, the power of land use reform. And yet what we’ve seen in the last several years in California, for example — perhaps our most progressive and largest jurisdiction — is on the one hand, the acknowledgement that land use is a key driver of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, let alone affordable housing crisis. And yet repeatedly the California legislature has been unable to pass laws that make it easier for municipalities and regions to do precisely the infill around transit nodes that we know is a really great strategy or solution. So does it come back then to the sort of basic problem of political will, of car culture, of development economics? Why can’t even California after so many years finally get over that hump and make this real as a matter of policy?
Rushad Nanavatty: Yeah. This is the optimist in me obviously, but I think you’re seeing the tide start to shift. And to their credit, there are a number of Californian local government leaders, state policymakers that have been really, really doggedly pursuing this agenda. And right now you have a number of bills, SB9, SB10 that facilitates or kind of encourages cities to pursue upzoning. There’s an AB — I think it’s 1401 — that is eliminating minimum parking requirements. So there are a number of, I think, promising legislative developments at play in California right now. And I feel like with each legislative cycle is coming closer to making meaningful breakthroughs.
And part of it is because I think you are seeing the tides start to turn among people who consider themselves environmentalists. They’re recognizing that preservation is not the same thing as environmentalism and in hanging onto the idea that a single-family home with a yard and a lawn is kind of consistent in today’s day and age with environmentalism, when the number one environmental issue is climate change. They’re beginning to see the inconsistency of those positions. And that’s why I’m at least somewhat hopeful — but then you may have more insight into the California legislative dynamics than I do.
Ben Holland: Well, no, I think you cover California pretty well, but there’s reason to be optimistic. So to nationwide, I mean, of course you have Oregon, which recently made it illegal to mandate single-family zoning and cities over 10,000 people across the state. Certainly not saying that state kind of preemption or state control has to be the only way to do this nationwide, but those are sort of positive signs, I think. And as Rushad mentioned, it does seem like there’s a bit of a domino effect happening on this subject.
William, you had mentioned the housing crisis, that convergence of the growing housing crisis with the climate crisis, I think has made this much more, or has enabled these communities to pursue this in a bigger way. Recent estimates are that since 1990, I believe to 2015, there was an underproduction of housing units to the tune of seven million housing units nationwide. So essentially, we need to make up that gap. And it’s becoming I think increasingly easy to explain the importance of that zoning to policymakers. So if we have to add seven million units in the U.S., where would you like those to be developed is the best way to do so.
Andy Bush: Because you were saying, let’s at least do the new things in the right places. And I think help us understand kind of… I know the results aren’t in yet, but give us kind of the flavor and overview of the three different cities that you’ve been looking at.
Ben Holland: So the three cities — Austin, Charlotte, and Denver — are all fairly similar in the fact that… I mean they’re geographically diverse, obviously, but they all share this quality of being quickly growing cities, high pressure on housing demand, but just quickly kind of going through them. We also considered sort of future transit development for those three cities. So kind of combining transportation investments with land use investments. Denver recently wrapped up or is in the process of wrapping up a very extensive light rail expansion that goes all the way back to a 2004 vote of fast tracks, which provided us a pretty good network to conduct some analysis around to where to implement higher density land use reform. Austin and Charlotte are similar in the fact that they’re about to embark on land development code rewrites. Austin’s been kind of dressing that for quite some time.
Charlotte’s new to it. With those three cities, we think the timing is really perfect to show the potential. And I think I mentioned earlier, we’re seeing compared to current levels… Sorry, let me rephrase this: Compared to our current production of housing, we think there’s potential to accommodate the necessary forecast, like basically forecast for housing growth in all of those cities, just by infill development, and in doing so, we’re seeing the potential to reduce VMT compared to today by 20 percent. That is basically our goal. I mean, that’s likely not going to occur because of market uptake and things of that nature, but the potential is there.
Andy Bush: Well, the other thing I think that people need to think about is we’ve been building what I call horizontal infrastructure for the last 100 or 500 years, and it lasts 100 years, probably a better way to say it. And most of that horizontal infrastructure is in place or could be upsized much more cost-effectively with urban infill than expanding that out into new land. So there’s an environmental benefit that comes from trying to use that existing horizontal infrastructure and spend more money on other things as we do that kind of infill.
Rushad Nanavatty: Yeah.
William Shutkin: But there’s still the pressure of drive-to-qualify and the American Dream of the single-family home, and Rushad, as you were suggesting, the law in the white picket fence, whether that’s in an infill setting or in the hinterland. It’s still a powerful cultural force and economic force. The regulatory costs of doing infill as Andy and I know so well, and you guys have seen, are formidable, especially in high-growth desirable cities, so tremendous countervailing pressures against these great ideas, Ben. But I love —
Rushad Nanavatty: I have one reaction to that, which is that… I think you’re hitting on something really important because you have to make the alternative more attractive. And I think when too many people think of density, they think of a skyscraper, they think of an urban canyon, they think of no light and no trees. But actually there’s a really beautiful middle ground that exists between that single-family zone. And you know this too well, because you’ve been building these things, and that scraper like that urban dystopia metropolis, whatever it is. And there are beautiful design solutions out there. And when you’re talking about the measures that we’re talking about, you’re not talking about criminalizing the single-family home, you’re talking about getting rid of exclusive single-family zoning. You’re talking about giving people choices, giving people options. And if the person still wants to live in a single-family home with a yard, have at it. Right now, if you want to live any other way in a lot of cities, you can’t, because 75 percent to 80 percent to 85 percent of the land just doesn’t support it, doesn’t allow it.
William Shutkin: Yeah. I think I should mention that…
Andy Bush: Where we’re building in Boulder right now and where RMI’s offices are, we’re building part of what’s going to be one of the most interesting, comfortable walkable neighborhoods in all of Boulder. It’s also going to be the dense square mile in Boulder. But I don’t think anyone’s ever going to talk about it being the dense square mile. I think they’re going to talk about how nice it is to walk, how nice the open space is, how great it is to have transit options. And we’re building, as you say, a better neighborhood, not just something that demonizes single family.
William Shutkin: And by design. This was an almost 20-year planning process resulting in what’s called Boulder Junction, that is now starting to take shape as of a few years ago. And within a matter of a couple more years will, as Andy says, be this truly urban environment, a city within a city, which no doubt, I think Boulder rights will deeply appreciate while at the same time continuing to embrace all of our wonderful conservation land.
Rushad, I think as you say (it’s such a great point): create more options, de-demonize the idea of density as something necessarily imposing and denying of sunlight and street trees. So is that a marketing challenge then? I mean, Ben, as you think about ways of communicating the kinds of research and findings that you and your team are coming up with, does that also mean presenting those findings in ways that are graphically compelling? And maybe you want to touch on your work with UrbanFootprint, who’s actually providing imagery to go along with the analysis that makes more compelling the upside or downside of whatever policy decision we might make.
Ben Holland: Yeah. I think you’re right, that it does… Some sort of visualization will help. Although, I think classic community engagement processes tend to come along with visual renderings of these great environments that people live in. It certainly helps, but it’s never quite as compelling as when you’re actually in it. I should say, I mean, just over the last year, the construction around Boulder Junction is really starting to come together. I was just walking through there the other day. It’s absolutely beautiful. Just how the buildings are sort of positioned next to one another and creating these common spaces that I know you all prioritized, and it really is becoming sort of a mini city or urban village, a 15-minute neighborhood, whatever you want to call it. They’re excited about that. And I think the more and more people can get exposed to that, the more potential there is to create those kinds of environments.
I wanted to say one other thing, and this is sort of segues into the UrbanFootprint analysis. I mean, Rushad had mentioned this tendency of people to think about skyscrapers when they think about density. The analysis that we’ve done for all three cities — we purposefully limited the infill and transit-oriented development to about an average of four to five stories. It was considered low-rise mixed-use. So your classic kind of mixed-use development retail on the floor, another three or four stories of housing above the retail, just through that, plus a little bit above zoning in the neighborhoods, we were able to accomplish those goals. And most of that analysis focused on developing vacant lots and underdeveloped kind of strip shopping centers. So there was no raising of neighborhoods or single-family homes. And that I think was one of my biggest takeaways, just how much potential there is out there, how much underutilized land there is out there to make these better decisions.
Andy Bush: One thing might be just to ask people to drive around their own community and look at the old strip centers and look around and then go find the nicest three to five story development in their community and say, which would you prefer? Because I think the politics of that are more meaningful to people than the abstracts out of it, if we could get people to engage at that level.
William Shutkin: Totally. Let alone the parking lots underused, or marginal auto businesses that are increasing looking to reduce their footprint or go online for their sales, the lumber yards, the strip malls, all of which are sort of right for redevelopment. But then you were going to also note the UrbanFootprint role. Can you tell folks what UrbanFootprint is and the kind of technology tools that are available to help visualize and make the case for policy changes for changes in market practice?
Ben Holland: Sure. Yeah. So UrbanFootprint is basically an online GIS tool. The company was founded by this sort of great urbanist, Peter Calthorpe, as well as this colleague, Joe DiStefano. And it’s one of a number of kind of upcoming tools that essentially allow the user to do changes to urban design. And this one’s really focused on zoning in that it gives you basically a canvas of any of the cities you’re working and every parcel in the city. And you can essentially repaint them to different land use types.
I’m personally excited about the potential to use this because that it is an area that lacked real numbers or real data-driven approach in the past. We’re finding that I think in urban planning in general, that’s becoming more and more important, like performance-based zoning, really goal-oriented zoning, as far as emissions reduction of VMT reduction. These kinds of tools enable that to happen. And I know William, you have some experience with similar tools like CommunityViz.
William Shutkin: So does Andy. In fact, Andy was part of the family foundation that I ran that had been a key part of helping create and our main investment. The main program of that foundation, at least through the first decade of this century, was a technology tool called CommunityViz, sort of proto UrbanFootprint. The whole idea behind CommunityViz was to be able to present in three dimensions what a community, what a place might look like based on certain policy changes and certain physical changes. So what if you put wind turbines on top of a beloved ridge top, what would that look like? What if you filled in an old parking lot with housing or better yet affordable housing? What kind of density, what kind of walkability and what kind of aesthetics could one achieve? So yeah, both Andy and I had experience with those kinds of tools. First or second generation, and man have they improved.
Andy Bush: Well, and what excites me as an urban planner by background, honestly, I feel like urban planning was largely kind of done by feel and done by an individual urban planner’s own aesthetics and perspectives, and this idea of combining data and outcomes and real measurable goals. I think we’ve entered that new era in the last decade — it’s one thing to have someone come in and tell you how you could make your city better, but it’s another to say, how can we really reduce vehicle miles traveled? How can we address an actual percentage increase in available housing? How can we deal with some of the social equity issues, but do those things with actual goals and statistics, and be able to measure and quantify your progress? Because as you said, I think earlier, a lot of cities had great lofty goals, but most cities aren’t achieving their great lofty goals.
William Shutkin: Yeah. That’s a good point. Hey, you guys, I wanted to go back to your optimism a little bit. Because I too, and Andy, I’d be interested in your view on this. I mean, Andy and I have kids roughly the same age, late teens, 20s, we’ve been doing this work for a few decades. You guys too. I sense a change. I mean, I look at, say, the rise of YIMBY, Yes In My Back Yard as a movement, founded by a young woman in her, what, late 20s in San Francisco? And now an international movement, saying yes to development of a certain kind and a certain quality. That to me represents a real change in consciousness. Ben was mentioning now housing and climate and transportation, and a host of other, Rushad, as you put it, sort of systems within a larger urban system.
People starting to connect the dots between where your house is, where your job is, and the kinds of emissions you’re creating by getting to and fro. I see those connections and change of consciousness occurring among a rising generation, which is I think super exciting. I also think, and Rushad and Ben, you might have heard me say this when I spoke to you guys and your staff a couple of years ago, and I did the same to the Natural Resources Defense Council, maybe three or four years ago. It’s now the case, Rushad and Ben, that many of the younger staff at places like RMI and NRDC, these environmental organizations, that younger generation of staff can no longer actually afford to live near those wonderful environmental offices.
So how many RMI staff in Boulder or San Francisco or Washington DC can now actually live close to their office when they’re earning a good but not astronomical nonprofit salary. So it’s really sort of hitting home. What is your sense of this evolutionary timeframe, Rushad, that you mentioned? Are we kind of a generation away from a signal shift in consciousness and our commitment to taking action? Is this something that might actually require several more generations because, let’s face it, we’ve still got industry, industry leaders, politicians who are vested deeply in the status quo. How quickly do you think this generational shift might occur and what might the results of that shift in fact be in real time?
Rushad Nanavatty: Yeah. That’s a great question and I’m not a futurist. But I mean, what I will say is that our back’s up against the wall with this climate crisis. And those are sometimes the only conditions under which the human species actually adds. And you’re beginning to see signs of this. You’re seeing policy change and change in corporate behavior and change in individual and household behavior that we wish we had seen 10 or 20 or 30 years ago when James Hanson first made his presentation to Congress.
At least you’re seeing it now. And the other thing that you see with a lot of technologies is sort of S curve in terms of adoptions where things are slow to get started, but that adoption curve steepens really, really rapidly. Just bringing it back to land use for a second, what you’ve seen with this YIMBY movement, what you’ve seen in the state of Oregon, what you’ve seen in Minneapolis, could represent the very sort of the early part of that S curve.
That’s obviously what I desperately want to believe, but the fact that this is now making its way into even federal infrastructure conversations, that when Biden first sort of put together his plan, they talked about some sort of award or race to the top type logic for jurisdictions that made these land use and zoning reforms. It certainly does give me some hope. And then I think you’re also seeing some of this reflected in consumer preferences, people who are starting young families now aren’t universally fleeing to the suburbs, the way you were seeing when kind of white flight out of cities was at its peak, which brings me back to actually a couple of points that you made earlier — that communications point.
When people think about the most vibrant, interesting, attractive urban neighborhoods in this country, the first thought that doesn’t come to them is, oh, density or mixed-use development. They think of the vibrancy. They think of this syncretism, they think of the street life. And painting that positive vision, I think is going to be critical to ensuring that we do get on that S curve trajectory. You mentioned earlier, William, in the conversation like, how the American Dream has seemed to center around the single-family home, the immaculate yard, the white picket fence.
And it doesn’t have to. When you make public spaces or trading off that private space for really, really attractive public space so much more… It’s profoundly important I think not just from an environmental standpoint, from a social standpoint, because when you create those spaces or when you prioritize those public spaces over the private spaces, you see people coming together in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise, and given extreme state of political polarization in this country, I think there’s really important — non-environmental but social benefits associated with what we’re talking about as well.
William Shutkin: That was Olmsted’s vision, of public parks as great democratizing institute… We still have —
Andy Bush: I also think if you look at, for example, Boulder Commons and Boulder Junction, it’s probably going to be… really might have a better number. But I would guess at least 30 percent, 35 percent affordable by definition, as part of it. It’s got great public spaces. When people think of great neighborhoods, great neighborhoods are kind of mixed by definition oftentimes. And I think that they’re interesting because of that social variety and people enjoy them for those reasons. And they enjoy walking and biking and kind of the alternate modes almost come naturally to those kinds of places.
Then I’m an optimist when I look at where the next generation is going, and at the same time, as you say, we’ve got our backs up against the wall. I think as people see wildfires as perennial, instead of occasional, and as you have smoke in Boulder that’s coming from the northwest, again, I think there’s a whole group of older folks like myself, who in their early 60s, are starting to wake up to this too. So I think it’s the movement that can be joined in a positive way. I had my neighbor, he worked in the oil and gas industry and they moved to Boulder from Houston. And when he saw the Tesla that my wife just bought, he said, “Thank God, you’re finally buying American.”
William Shutkin: I love it. Well, and to pick up on these themes, which I appreciate, and I think like all of us, I too am bullish on our future and our ability to tackle problems, even if it means our back is up against the wall and we have no other choice, but here’s the paradox. And Ben, I’ll be curious how you see this. When we start to take these very measures designed to improve the quality of life, the environmental quality of communities, indeed measures designed to make communities more inclusive, racially, economically, socially. As Andy said, Boulder Junction is by design an inclusive community, which means there’s a lot of public policy support and a lot of private sector investment going into Boulder Junction to ensure that a certain number of units, approaching 50 percent of the number of units in Boulder Junction, will be below market.
So permanently derestricted below-market rental units, for the most part. The paradox is right. Those very communities, Jane Jacobs, ideal West Village neighborhood, downtown Manhattan become more expensive. So what level of public policy support, basically taxpayer support, do you guys think we as Americans are willing to invest in achieving these kinds of communities, not just the green infrastructure and the High Lines and other wonderful parks, but the social inclusion that’s required to realize fully this vision.
Ben Holland: I would say, first of all, I mean, those are very real concerns gentrification, and you had mentioned earlier, suburbanization of poverty. When development is just concentrated in a given area, it’s reasonable to assume you’ll see increases in property values. And I don’t want to downplay the impact, but often the increases you see in property values and some of the gentrification you’ll see in other areas tends to be also be a symptom of the fact that you can’t build in the high-demand areas.
Austin’s a perfect example of that. I mean, Boulder as well. The neighborhoods that hug the downtown cores, whether it’s Pearl Street in Boulder, or the downtown of Austin, tend to be sort of locked in amber from a land use perspective. So you’re going to see that’s just going to make even more extreme the negative impacts that you see elsewhere. Elevating that to a public policy level — that is, getting buy-in from mainstream voters and residents of cities — that’s a long kind of uphill battle, I think. But we’re certainly making progress.
Andy Bush: I would say that it is kind of an inevitable outcome in a specific localized area. But I think to me, part of the solution is, let’s just do more of it. Let’s just make a bunch of really great places. Over time I think, it’ll start to balance itself out a little bit.
William Shutkin: That’s a great point, Andy. And I love your expression, Ben, the sort of locked in amber, these little precious downtowns, which become these jewels that nobody will touch, and they’re surrounded, they’re armored by all sorts of land use protections. But on that best places idea that Andy just noted, I’d be curious, Rushad, especially given your upbringing in India and I take it you’ve had some global travel with your McKinsey experience, being the global travelers that we know McKinsey folk are. Ben, you’ve been to various cities, I know at least around this country, if not abroad.
Do you guys find yourself often pointing to particular cities or even particular neighborhoods within cities here or around the world as sort of approaching that better or best place that we spend a lot of time talking about in the 21st century? Not because they’re locked in amber, but rather because they’re preserving the best of the old, but they’re moving toward the new, and I know we talk about Copenhagen for sure. We talk about certain set of other poster cities. What are cities that reach the top of your mind and list as you think about it?
Rushad Nanavatty: Yeah. I mean, there are, I guess, your usual suspects in Europe that come to mind, Northern Europe in particular. A lot of cities that were designed before we invented the automobile and laid out before we invented the automobile, kind of represent something close to an ideal. When American tourists go and visit these medieval European cities, again, they don’t come back and talk about the “density.” They talk about the walkability. They talk about the quality of life. They talk about the vibrancy of these places. And so those are obvious examples, and you can find them all over the world, not just in Europe. But one thing that they do have in common is that their basic structure, their bones were laid out or in place before the arrival of the automobile. But it’s also important to recognize that even among those examples, you have places like Amsterdam, which you think Amsterdam, you think canals and you think bikes. Amsterdam was a pretty car-centric place before the 1970s. And it took a series of very, very conscious and brave policy decisions to turn it into what it is today. And that’s another thing that gives you hope for where we are here in the U.S., in the here and now, in that things can actually change and change pretty quickly.
So that’s on the opportunity side. On the threat side, you obviously have a global south where urbanization is happening extremely rapidly, when you have populations that are getting richer so, so quickly, levels of consumption arising extremely, extremely fast. And a lot of those places face a fork in the road to pursue, say for want of a better kind of shorthand, European patterns of urban development or U.S. patterns of urban development. And that’s going to have profound consequences for the planet — it’s going to make or break our climate aspirations. And in too many places you find the same sort of infrastructure spending biases starting to take root.
Ben actually alerted me to this example in Dhaka in Bangladesh, for example: It’s spending a hundred times more on highway and large road infrastructure than it is spending on infrastructure that supports walking and biking and non-motorized transportation and transportation alternatives. And we have to prevent that, help these cities prevent them from taking what could be a really, really destructive path, not just for the planet, but for themselves.
Andy Bush: Well, as we kind of finish up and think about looking forward, if you had to make your most optimistic pitch to a city leader, realizing that every city is different and it’s hard to make a pitch to a state or a federal government oftentimes. But if you were to make your optimistic pitch to a city in a broad scale as to what we need to do and why, what would be your two-minute elevator pitch to a city leader?
Rushad Nanavatty: Ben, that’s a great challenge.
Ben Holland: Well, I guess I would tell the city leader that the solution that we’re offering, or the set of solutions that we’re offering, will create more tax base for a community, make it a more desirable place to live and to visit, will attract greater tourism, will make streets that are safer for your children and a suite of kind of public health benefits. And then ultimately reduce emissions. I mean, there are a number of… I think we need to get better at elevating the sort of community development aspects of these things as we sell it to city leaders.
Andy Bush: And Rushad, what would you add on the pitch if you were the closer?
Rushad Nanavatty: I think Ben is dead-on in that you want to lead with what your audience cares most about, and most mayors for better or worse care about things like economic development and jobs and growth and equity and public health, more than they do climate even now. And I think leading with those arguments is key, but I will maybe digress a little bit to point out the importance of state action. Ben pointed to the state of Oregon driving upzoning in that state. And that’s really, really important and promising because it bypasses the NIMBYism.
The challenge with city leaders is, they’re biased towards the preservation instincts because they’re beholden to city, to the voters living within municipal boundaries, as opposed to the broader community and states have the advantage of being able to solve for the population of the entire state, rather than the people who are currently occupying any given city. I just want to highlight the importance and the potential of for state action in addition to city and local government action.
Andy Bush: And William, you and I have debated this, so you get to finish. Is taking up the next level at a federal level or countries cooperating? How do you see it as the next steps? And what’s the pitch?
William Shutkin: Yeah, it’s a great question, Andy. And Rushad, your point’s such a good one, which goes to the complexity of these issues. Not only are they all connected, let’s say horizontally, but vertically the local to the state, to the national, to the international. Because the negative externalities Rushad that you’ve been referring to of very sort of hyper-local decisions need to be ultimately accounted for. And those indeed are things like emissions from long commutes, because let’s say the city of Boulder doesn’t want more development and the housing growth happens outside, but folks are still coming into Boulder, because it’s such an amazing job center. So we need this sort of jujitsu of coordinated action and finesse, but here’s ultimately where I’m super hopeful. And again, this sort of percolates up from the local ultimately to higher levels and broader levels of governance.
And that is this generational shift, generational shift in consciousness and in leadership. And it’s for me best reflected by the YIMBY movement by young people, 20s and 30s, who are very sophisticated, who have done the research, who are learning about all sorts of different fields and disciplines from design to development to transportation and wrapping it up into a set of campaigns and strategies, and they’re starting at the local level. They started in Brooklyn and San Francisco and Berkeley and Minneapolis. And now they’re moving, they’re going to state houses and eventually to Congress with a very sophisticated understanding that connects up community development, of the sort you’ve talked about Ben, with sort of global issues from immigration to climate change. Because a big agenda of YIMBY for example, is creating communities that are welcoming to immigrant communities, new communities.
They’re often the source of great innovation and creativity. So it’s this truly diverse agenda that in some ways starts with land use as the background, the foundation, and then from there tries to do so many other things. So I think it’s happening, Andy, and I think it’s generational. And I think we continue to work as hard as we can in the here and now, but know that there’s only so much even with our backs up against the wall. And I think we’ve seen this with COVID, like you can show so many facts, you can even have a death in the family and still resist policy action at collective action. And that to me is a really important lesson of COVID, that no matter what the stakes might be, there’s still going to be some folks who will really do their best not to be part of the solution, let’s put it that way, for whatever reasons.
Andy Bush: And I would say that on the other side, I’m optimistic because I see people who weren’t part of an environmental movement, or didn’t have a perspective on social, environmental change, all of a sudden excited. And people who were in their 40s and 50s and 60s and even 70s. And I’m optimistic about our youth in the sense that I think it’s amazing what we can do in the generation through generational change. I’m also excited about what everyone else is doing… Thank you both for being part of this today and for what RMI is doing, not only in each of these verticals, but I think the idea of bringing it all together in the urban transformation side of that is a wonderful kind of gift to our society.
William Shutkin: So well said, Andy. Seriously, I love the fact that you guys have been able to create this new program as of about a year ago, demonstrating that RMI is itself willing to evolve and change and broaden its view. It’s evidence of the very kinds of change and innovation that we’re talking about. So Ben and Rushad, thanks so much for joining us and for the incredible work you guys are doing in changing our field and ultimately in building better cities.
Next time we’re joined by Melanie Nutter, former director of San Francisco’s Department of Environment, and Susie Strife, director of the Office of Sustainability, Climate Action and Resilience for Boulder County, Colorado, to discuss the role of chief sustainability officers in achieving sustainable cities.