The Climate Imperative of TOD in Santa Monica

One of the sub-rifts I’ve observed within the debates and backlashes against development in Santa Monica reflects the diverging views within environmentally conscience minds about balancing localized and broader impacts. There are people who have advocated for environmental initiatives of various kinds their entire life, who I fundamentally clash with despite also considering myself a passionate advocate environmental protection. We’re seeing the same issues with completely different lenses.

Our Santa Monica weekly column is supported by Bike Center in Santa Monica.

In what I am going to refer to as a slow or no growth locally perspective, to add development intensity of any kind here is to further potentially increase the impact of Santa Monica. This impact is a net negative, and one perceived to be associated with a linear increase in more vehicle traffic or other negative consequences.

Anchoring around walkable areas tied to transit investments already under construction, is lower impact and more sustainable (ecologically speaking and financially) than having the investment capital for development flow outward. Adding transit oriented development is a non-linear process, and facilitates more walkable and bikeable distances between a greater number of potential homes and businesses along with the potential for longer trips made by transit service. A shift away from automobile dependency and centrism is an imperative.

Within the realm of choices Santa Monica can make for itself, allowing for more transit oriented development near our already under construction electric light rail line connecting us to Downtown Los Angeles, is one of the best things we can do to enable lower energy use per capita for more people, maintain strong city finances, and address some of the supply side of the forces making the city less affordable and accessible. People living in Santa Monica along the Expo Line corridor already have shorter commute times than most places in the region, I’m guessing in part because so many jobs already exist within that area (my own 10 minute daily bike commute fits completely within that light pink slice).

Our ideal climate also reduces household energy demand significantly. As of this writing, Burbank just set a new record high of 103 degrees. Santa Monica was in the low 70′s and upper 60′s during the same part of the day, wrapped in that natural air conditioning we call the marine layer. Given a choice of adding units in Burbank or Santa Monica, units in Santa Monica will by default use less energy without residents even having to think about it. The means to live a lower carbon lifestyle, so long as one can afford the barriers to entry and the capacity exists, is just plain easier in Santa Monica.

However, the prevailing paradigm in the U.S. and Southern California in particular has been banking on suburban and exurban sprawl that consumes an ever growing footprint, diminishing formally agricultural or open land. The forces behind developing automobile centric sprawl are complex and numerous, but making infill development or renovation of old buildings to new uses prohibitively difficult through zoning and costly parking minimums in established communities, is certainly helping push sprawl outward. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns has made a compelling case that the low density auto-oriented sprawl model of development is not financially viable over multiple infrastructure life-cycles, independently of any environmentally focused concerns.

The L.A. region,California, the United States and global population are still on growth paths. We have demographic shifts of more aging and retiring early boomers looking for less automobile dependent housing at the same time that the biggest U.S. generation, the millennials, are increasingly leaving the nest (if they can) and seeking employment in urban centers. These factors and others, within the framework of our current economic system, all apply price pressures reflected in rising rents in compact urban areas with a lot of job opportunities, such as Santa Monica currently enjoys among other benefits.

With those conditions in place, I don’t see any choice but to in some locations infill, build upward, or we are promoting to build outward (sprawl). Automobile oriented sprawl is by far the most environmentally damaging way for  development to take shape by far. Both in sheer land use footprint and the energy demands of spreading everything further apart in ever greater regional orbits. Given the number of underutilized properties and land devoted to parking lots within the central east/west corridor of Santa Monica, there many opportunities to develop and add density even in areas referred to as built out, that do not have to depend on going significantly upward.

That doesn’t mean I support settling for any kind of development by any means. I want to see more local energy spent imagining how development could better fit within our other goals and values. I’d like to see some serious conversations about innovative ideas like requiring passive solar design and active solar energy generation (Lancaster, CA is phasing in solar requirements) or solar water heating features (as Hawaii requires on new construction). A real plan toward sustainability should consider requirements that are a net positive from the current state of affairs, and ditch any mandates to pollute more like parking minimum zoning.

I’ve been told a few times that tight water demands mean we ought not allow more density in Santa Monica, but L.A. regional residential water demand is driven most by keeping short blade grass green in a chaparral climate that is poorly suited to non-water conserving plants. Unguided by urban growth boundaries, a lot of development in the past several decades has gone to where ever it could, often in drier areas of the Southern California region with cookie cutter houses and over sized front yards caught up in the keeping grass green arms race.

When we consider the adaption side of the climate change, concentrating future development in very low lying coastal areas could, much further out in time, become problematic, if we do not radically change course on emissions. Despite being very close to the sea however, most of Santa Monica is largely insulted from potential oceans threats by high bluffs and ascending elevation moving inland. However, long before we might see sea level rise significant enough to require intervention in the L.A. area (with the southern edge of Santa Monica, Venice, Marina Del Rey and Long Beach on the front lines of sea level risk in LA County), we are already seeing our inland areas dealing with higher temperatures and more severe droughts and dryness. Heat is not to be under estimated in harm, and people dieing from heat related symptoms in heat waves is not uncommon even under 20th century norms.

Global warming impacts may reduce the desirability of the hottest inhabited SoCal regional microclimates, and further fuel demand for cooler regional locales if populations start to shift. Santa Monica is in the unique position of a micro-climate that can at times be more than 30 degrees cooler than locations like Encino that are only 8 miles away. In light of the 400ppm CO2 daily average milestone recently recorded in Mauna Loa Hawaii and inadequate action globally to address the rising emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, I’m not particularly encouraged by our prospects for averting some serious shake ups around the globe in the coming century.

Santa Monica From AboveThe effect of the parts per million of CO2 concentration in our atmosphere is a globalized phenomenon. Whether CO2 is emitted here, or from mini-McMansions in Chino Hills, the atmosphere doesn’t care, but some types of development undeniably foster radically different emissions outcomes per person.

Our 8 square miles in Santa Monica is far from isolated, it functions as part of a region that is completely interdependent, and the accounting for our progress, or setbacks, on meeting environmental goals, cannot simply stop at the municipal borders. John Muir famously wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” In applying that sentiment to urbanism, I find it to mean we can never consider the actions or inactions of a municipality like Santa Monica independently of the context of neighboring forces.

Looking outward at the broader systems and society we are inherently connected to, fostering transit and bicycling oriented development here is one of most effective actions Santa Monica could take with it’s own power toward mitigating human impacts on the environment as a whole. I suspect there are some who may never come around to seeing it this way however, and the tension of trying to reconcile these views will continue to shape debates in sustainability minded communities like Santa Monica and the broader environmental discourse for some time to come.