Part of what makes posting on Village 14 fun is how the criticism and responding to the criticism sharpens one’s thinking on a topic.

Some of us, in posts and in the comments, are frustrated by self-proclaimed environmentalists who do not make housing density in the inner-ring suburbs (read Newton) their first or at least a high priority. I won’t rehash the argument here, except to say there is a growing consensus that adding housing density in an inner-ring suburb is the single most effective response that municipalities can make to combating the global climate crisis. Put another way, adding density close to people’s work and other destinations reduces the number of vehicle miles traveled compared to adding more suburban sprawl.

To that argument, commenters have a variety of responses. The conversations in the threads suggest to me that there are three positions you can have on the connection between climate change and density, with multiple policy responses for two of them. 

  1. There is no connection between adding density and having an impact on climate change
  2. Adding density might help stem climate change
    1. But the impact of density — added traffic, changes to the neighborhood, impact on schools, impact of infrastructure — are not worth any benefits
    2. But the benefits won’t or shouldn’t be realized without some pre-conditions — typically transit improvements or affordable housing (see below)
  3. Adding density will help stem climate change
    1. The way to add density is to allow more density in certain areas of the city
    2. The way to add density is to allow more density across the city, including, literally, in my back yard
    3. We should all be forced to live in multi-family  

For the sake of not having too many categories, let’s assume that adding density doesn’t mean unlimited density, but meaningful increases from existing conditions. We’ll save the question about whether or not it should be three, six, or ten stories along Washington St. for a different classification system. If it’s three stories, you’re probably in 1 or 2. We’ll let the six- and ten-story folks live together in 3A or 3B.

There are two overlaid housing access concerns.

  • Adding density creates the risk of gentrification and displacement
  • Adding density won’t add any or enough truly affordable housing and won’t lower housing costs generally

Both of these are important concerns. If we’re going to add density, we should do it in a way that protects people from being moved out of their neighborhoods. And, we should acknowledge that the simply adding density is likely to have a small impact on housing affordability in Newton. Adding truly low-income housing will require regulation, direct investment, and creating opportunities for non-profits. The impact on housing costs generally is hazy and probably depends on how where you’re measuring the impact — in Newton alone or regionally.

But, these housing access concerns can be separated from folks’ position on the connection between density and climate change. The housing access concerns really bear on the question of which kinds of multi-family dwellings we allow, not whether or where we add density. If you really think that we should only be adding new housing if it measurably solves the affordability issue on some dimension, you’re a 2A, unless there’s some feasible mechanism for adding affordable housing in significant amounts. 

So, do you think that these categories cover the issue? If not, what dimension of the analysis is missing?

Where do you stand? I’m definitely a 3B, but I think I could be convinced that 3C is the right answer.

Where do you think your favorite candidate lands. (We’ll ask them.)