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Infill housing is critical for a healthy region and climate

Infill housing is critical for a healthy region and climate

Zack Subin and Zoe Siegel
Dec. 18, 2020

Bay Area cities and the state government have taken great steps recently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the climate crisis. Recent bold action to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy include the exclusion of fossil gas from new buildings in major Bay Area cities, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s series of executive orders to phase out gasoline-powered cars, and state legislation to bring a carbon-free power grid.

In order to more completely address climate change, we need to think beyond energy infrastructure and tackle our housing crisis as well. To do this, we need to change the way we build, and in doing so change the environmental rhetoric around new housing. This change requires us to build dense infill developments as well as “missing middle housing” (like townhouses, fourplexes, and courtyard apartments) in existing communities, while discouraging sprawl development in high risk zones most vulnerable to climate change.

Simply allowing for more people to live in Bay Area cities is one of the most potent means of reducing climate pollution with local policies. According to research led by UC Berkeley’s Chris Jones (available interactively at, it could be the single most impactful measure for Bay Area cities ranging from San Francisco to Oakland to Mountain View. This is because cities in the inner Bay Area already have relatively low carbon footprints, particularly within the transit-rich core.

Housing we don’t build in cities ends up in outlying suburbs where folks are forced to drive for most daily activities, burning gasoline and necessitating far more asphalt, steel and concrete. A drumbeat of reports from state and national organizations, including the California Air Resources Board, have said that the continued upward trend in miles driven is a threat to our emissions goals, even considering a continued shift to electric cars. Moreover, continued development on the suburban fringe threatens the very natural and working lands we need intact to reach carbon neutrality.

Infill housing (built within areas that are already largely developed) is one of the best ways we can drive down emissions, while also allowing us to limit further sprawl and displacement. Yet time and time again, when new infill housing is proposed, there are almost always people opposing the project for “environmental reasons,” usually citing issues around traffic and green space.

What they should instead come to realize is that infill housing supports the environment and represents a critical solution to both the climate and housing crises. Building more housing in existing communities will allow more people to live in walkable neighborhoods, reducing traffic and opening the possibility of returning urban space from cars to people and trees. Eliminating mandatory parking requirements and instead charging fair prices for use of public street space are key steps to ensure this outcome.

Low income and communities of color are already disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change, and the compounding effects of gentrification make it even more challenging to live in the Bay Area. Rising rents are displacing lifelong residents, forcing them to move to the outer edges of the region. When we add new housing, we need to prioritize the considerations of communities that have borne the brunt of disinvestment and displacement.

At the same time, there are a myriad of affluent communities that have been the direct economic beneficiaries of redlining and unfair housing laws. In places like Marin through San Francisco’s west side and south along the Peninsula, it is clear that legalizing apartments would help integrate neighborhoods and expand access to opportunity. In fact, reforming the exclusionary zoning barriers to infill housing now represents a consensus policy for national Democrats from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to President-elect Joe Biden, and the national Sierra Club platform calls for “affirmative support” for infill housing and inclusive communities.

Unfortunately, though infill housing is one of the main climate interventions that is squarely within the power of local governments, there are still racist and exclusionary policies which continue to get in the way of creating the healthy, resilient communities we need. In many communities around the Bay Area, affluent homeowners are resisting needed land use change. Just this past election, the city of Alameda had the chance to repeal a racist housing law that prohibits multi-family homes by passing Measure Z. Instead, they voted no.

Housing activists and environmentalists need to work together as climate champions for our region in order to promote development, reduce sprawl, and protect our critical natural and working lands. Throughout the Bay Area, we see nonprofit organizations stepping up to make the case for infill housing as a climate solution, beginning with removing barriers to building homes in high-opportunity neighborhoods. Organizations like SPURGreenbelt Alliance and the Greenlining Institute are building platforms for housing advocacy that support our environmental goals and redress our inequitable residential patterns. Additionally, a group of us co-founded Urban Environmentalists in 2019 to bring together voices for housing and for climate action. Join us with your ideas and your volunteer hours to help build an inclusive, climate-resilient Bay Area.

Zack Subin is a volunteer co-lead of Urban Environmentalists, living in San Francisco; Zoe Siegel is director of Climate Resilience at Greenbelt Alliance, living in Oakland.

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