Thursday, July 18, 2024

The organization A Better Cambridge favors increased density through more infill housing in Cambridge, claiming that this is good climate policy and citing an essay posted Sept. 26 on Medium by Jonathan Behrens as justification. The implications of this article being promoted by ABC are disturbing – and may be based on a misinterpretation of the data.

According to Behrens, “for infill to help, you need somewhere that both has lower emissions than nearby wealthy cities and has enough wealthy households wanting to move there.” He asserts that since Cambridge has “very low household carbon emissions compared to the surrounding area,” a good policy to lower climate emissions would be to build more infill housing in Cambridge precisely because that housing is likely to be occupied by relatively wealthy people. The idea is that these people would otherwise live more carbon-intensive lifestyles in suburbia. His proposed approach would lead to a wealthier Cambridge community with more price pressure driving out low-income people.

This is clearly a terrible policy from an affordable-housing and equity point of view. It is consistent with A Better Cambridge’s support of the Missing Middle proposal, which would have promoted development of new housing primarily for affluent homeowners but is definitely not what is needed for equity in Cambridge!

But is his argument correct regarding high-income people living in cities rather than suburbs? Would turning Cambridge into a haven for even more affluent homeowners really be a plus for the climate? Behrens’ argument is based primarily on a recommendation from a California study for more infill housing in San Francisco. But San Francisco, while similar to Cambridge in average income and density, is very different in other ways. For San Francisco, the main alternative to city living would probably be a commute from a fairly distant suburb. For Cambridge, the main alternative location would probably be another inner suburb such as Belmont or Newton – and according to the data map that Behrens presents, these other inner suburbs have very similar carbon footprints to Cambridge. It is the outer suburbs (near to the Interstate 495 belt) that have typically higher carbon footprints, and these would not likely be the location of choice for more affluent homeowners.

In addition, building infill housing in Cambridge often results in loss of tree canopy and open space, which we know is a negative for the climate as well as for other ecological issues such as water absorption, which is relevant for climate resilience.

Another flaw in Behrens’ argument is his assumption that Cambridge has “strong public transit infrastructure” and presumably that the new affluent homeowners that he wants would use public transit rather than drive cars. This is very questionable. Anyone who uses public transit in Cambridge (especially buses) is aware that system is underfunded and often unreliable, and the riders are mostly working-class rather than affluent.

Contrary to Behrens’ description of Cambridge as “a wealthy inner ring suburb of Boston,” Cambridge is not a uniformly wealthy city. We have a significant lower-income population many of whom are struggling to hold on in a real estate market pressured by excessive development (for example, replacing existing rental housing with new condos for the affluent). The upper-income folks generally have cars (often two per household), and the increase in traffic on Cambridge streets that has accompanied excessive development is very noticeable. Even more development likely means even more cars, more congestion and a lot of carbon emissions from frustrated drivers sitting in traffic.

So let’s not rush to destroy open space and tree canopy to build housing for the affluent. Cambridge is already one of the densest cities in Massachusetts and the country. Cambridge needs more carefully planned development aimed at affordability and equity and including green design and preservation of open space, not the corporate and developer-driven pattern we see now that is bad both for climate and equity.

Jonathan Harris, Marie Avenue

Jonathan Harris is a visiting scholar at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.