Climate Change and Pasadena’s General Plan: What Would It Take? The Carbon Neutral City
California and Pasadena are committed to “green” environmental policies. But a lot of the beneficial changes we’ve enacted––the bag ban, 10% renewable energy, green building codes, etc.––are a drop in the bucket compared to the elephant in the room: our Land Use policies.
That is, does Pasadena’s zoning code encourage people to live in a sustainable manner––walking, biking, using public transportation, with only occasional automobile use––or does it contribute to the sprawl of suburban development, where low density makes frequent automobile trips an unavoidable necessity of daily life?
Downtown Pasadena, as a compact, walkable urban neighborhood served by the Gold Line, is uniquely able to provide the right kind of housing that isn’t auto-dependent. Because our apartments, office buildings, shops, and other buildings are so closely-spaced, Downtown Pasadena is sustainable (although there is still substantial improvements that could be made). Our sustainability/walkability is rare. Outside of a few pockets inside of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, and Long Beach, much of the rest of Southern California is dismally auto-dependent and unsustainable.
The choice presented by the General Plan is: Do we want to maximize Downtown Pasadena’s unique opportunity by allowing additional housing growth Downtown, or do we want to clamp the lid shut and say to prospective new residents, “Sorry, there’s no more room for you.”
The larger issue in terms of climate change and sustainable planning is regional. Will Pasadena step up and provide a place to live for people who want to become a 1-car household, commute via the Gold Line, or perhaps get rid of all their autos altogether? Will Downtown Pasadena have room for people who may be living in auto-dependent Rancho Cucamonga, Irvine, Glendora, etc. or even East Pasadena to move here and ditch their car? We should.
Pasadena’s General Plan, therefore, should significantly expand or eliminate the cap on residential development in Downtown Pasadena. The General Plan should continue the policy, affirmed by voters, of Guiding Principle #1, which states that “Growth will be targeted… [and] higher density development will be directed into our Downtown…”
Not only is increased urban density in Downtown Pasadena the sustainable policy, it also results in a higher quality of life for both Downtown residents, and for residents living in the surrounding single-family homes, too.
The following article does such a good job of outlining the need for a dense, compact urban core for Pasadena, that it deserves reposting here.
…the best thing a city can do [to become a Carbon Neutral City] is densify as quickly as it can. That needs to be said every time this issue comes up, because it’s the only universal strategy that works. That’s the best-documented finding in urban planning—that as density goes up, trip length goes down and transportation energy use goes down. The main question that nearly every city in North America needs to address is how to densify quickly.
Once people are grappling with that, though, there are other things people need to do to make that work: making neighborhoods walkable, with green spaces, street life, mixed-use zoning and other qualities that make a place livable. If you have density without that, you just have vertical suburbs.
One of the most unfortunate side effects of the urban activism of the ’60s and ’70s is the belief that development is wrong and that fighting it makes you an environmentalist. We know that dense cities are both environmentally better and dramatically more equitable places. Walkable neighborhoods are better than the suburbs for people with a wide range of incomes, and what happens in cities that don’t grow is that they gentrify and poor people are pushed out. Trying to fight change makes you less sustainable and more unfair.
There’s a great plan for the city of Melbourne… The city’s growing quickly, needs to add a million people over the next decade or two, but they don’t want that to be sprawl. So they took a digital map of the city and blocked off everything that’s currently single-family residences, everything that’s a historical building, everything that’s green space, working industrial land, and other things people are vociferous about valuing. That left a fairly small percentage of land. But they showed that if they concentrated density in those corridors, they could add a million people without expanding the city at all, and it would add all these benefits, like better public transit and such.
You can dramatically increase the density of places without taking away things people want—and actually adding things they want but couldn’t afford today—because the average suburb isn’t dense enough to financially support a tram or the like. But if you add a dense core that can support that, suddenly even the people around it, in their single-family homes, get the benefit, too. I call that “tent-pole density,” where extremely high density in a small area brings up the average for a whole neighborhood, even when the rest of the neighborhood doesn’t change. I think it’s a really important concept, one that most people don’t get.
We’ve run out of time for incremental approaches. For carbon-neutral cities, there are things worth talking about in how our consumption patterns can change—sharing goods, etc.—but those are a fraction of the impacts of transportation and building energy use. If we need to choose priority actions, the most important things are to densify, provide transit, and green the buildings.
Other great links
The consequences of suburbanization: YouTube video “Sprawling From Grace”
What is Transit-Oriented-Development? (Portland, OR): PBS e-squared (narrated by Brad Pitt)
The negative consequences of height restrictions: The Atlantic: Should Building Taller Be Much, Much, Easier?
“This sounds counter-intuitive, but taller buildings that are part of a walkable, transit-oriented community can actually help ease congestion. In a denser urban world, people will walk to work, clearing up traffic congestion. That time commuters spent in their cars they can instead spend with their families. Now they’re happier. And with all these happy people living in such close proximity to each other, dense communities can support more retail, more restaurants, more transit, more tax base, all of which serves to attract yet more people and businesses.”
General Plan Workshop – Saturday, March 10th
Come to a community workshop to discuss the objectives and policies that make up the General Plan’s Land Use and Mobility Chapters. The Land Use Chapter outlines how and where we should grow and the Mobility Chapter guides the safe and efficient movement of people and goods throughout the City. We need to attend this workshop to urge continued sustainable investment in Downtown through increased residential caps!
- Saturday, March 10th @ 9:30 AM, Pasadena City College, 1570 E. Colorado Bl., Circadian Room, Building CC
For more information, go to www.cityofpasadena.net/generalplan and click “Policy Workshops” or call the DPNA at (626) 539-3762.