Here’s a potentially good idea about which I’m rather ambivalent: rules requiring in-city developers to include robust landscaping features such as green roofs and vegetation-covered walls. It’s easy on the eyes, but it may not be smart public policy.
To begin with, it’s unclear how much burden Seattle’s cutting-edge new rules would impose; and it’s unclear how much benefit they’d achieve. But if most developers are skeptical—and they are, at least according to this article—then policymakers should listen very carefully.
Burdening developers with additional layers of regulatory complexity, especially here in regulation-heavy Seattle, may not be such a hot idea. Those regulations tend to reduce the viability of further in-city development or raise the cost. Either is bad.
No, I haven’t been reading Milton Friedman over the holidays. It’s just that when it comes to urban development, I’m not sure that we need a lot of elaborate new policies and procedures. In some case, we simply need less red tape.
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
The most environmentally sensitive thing we can do in urban design is encourage more density in places that allow us to live lighter on the land. That means giving people an opportunity to live, work, and do business in places where tennis shoes substitute for gas tanks. (Generally, those are also places where people consume less land and also use less energy heating and lighting their homes.) To encourage that sort of environmentally beneficent way of living, the smartest public policy may be to to slash well-intentioned but unnecessary obstacles to development. Minimum parking requirements leap to mind. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others.
Construction costs are already spiking and urban affordability is already a serious problem. Sprawl is accelerating in places where land is cheap and regulations are minimal. So unless we have a really good reason (and there certainly are some) we should avoid making it more expensive to build commercial real estate or multi-family housing in urban areas.
I guess I should mention that I’m hardly opposed to green design for managing stormwater runoff or to achieve other benefits. (In fact, I’ve been semi-obsessedwiththeissue lately.) In many cases, environmentally-friendly design may actually be cheaper and more efficient than conventional alternatives. Trees can cut down on air conditioning; swales can ease drainage loads; and studies have shown that urban vegetation has social and economic benefits too.
So there’s all that. But some policies have unintended consequences that may actually be counterproductive; and getting a handful of green roofs is not worth discouraging development in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods.
Let’s call it the Ockham’s Razor of environmental policymaking: sometimes the smartest thing we can do for the environment may also be the simplest.
Maybe instead of policies requiring green building—or else, we somehow build in special incentives—feebates?—to developers who do build green. Instead of discouraging density altogether, we’re inviting developers to be innovative AND stay in the city limits with their big projects.
Eric makes a great point here. Regulations always sound “free” but in reality if there is cost it has to be measured against the potential benefit. In this case it may significant only in certain areas. Regulation adds dead weight costs, prices go up, and often there is the price of bad will. Look at the rural backlash in this region, the costs of fighing I-933, etc. ‘Feebates’ would come directly out of city coffers, but at least they make the cost easier to quantify and politicians have less chance of making it appear we’re getting something for nothing.
Eric, I’m as big a fan of ambivalence as any other Good Liberal, but in this case there’s probably not much need for ambivalent angst. The Green Factor offers several options that developers can mix and match to meet the City’s open space requirements. Or, as I understand it, they can also choose to ignore it all and simply meet a set open space percentage, as was the case before the Green Factor was adopted. In effect, developers are being offered a “bonus” in exchange for providing green amenities. If a green roof offsets required open space on the ground, that ground can then be covered with building, which translates to more profit for the developer. Furthermore, consider this: Let’s say, for example, that the old code required landscaped open space equivalent to 20% of residential floor area. So if you’re stacking residential floors, you might end up in a situation where the building height is capped because you run out of places to put that 20% open space. In this case, the Green Factor would provide a way out, a mechanism to enable higher residential density.The general idea is to be smarter about our open space, emphasizing quality over quantity, and giving designers more choices. The old code may be simpler, but it also probably has a lot to do with why we have so many useless barren plazas in Seattle. In the end, I suspect the Green Factor will have very little impact on the viability of developing dense housing in Seattle, or on the final cost of that housing. OK Milton?
I second Dan’s comment.One of the other things important in design – any design, anywhere – is amenities. Green roofs offer potentially hi-quality amenity space to relieve stress, improve wellbeing, and the Directed Attention Fatigue common in the built environment. Green space (remember, I’m a green infrastructure guy) calms the savage beast and may result in higher productivity; these are benefits to humans, and I haven’t even mentioned the benefits to the rest of the ecosystem yet. The benefits being nonmarket goods in neoclassical economics makes it tough to do a true valuation of their worth, Eric.Hope you guys are staying dry back there.DS