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Is housing bad for the environment?

Uploaded: Oct 30, 2022

I got an email recently from a resident expressing concern about the environmental impacts of building more housing. He writes: “The construction of thousands of new housing units takes enormous resources: cement, lumber, sheetrock, glass, tiles, roofing materials, etc., and each unit will have to be equipped with domestic essentials, so we need 6,000 stoves, ovens, fridges, dishwashers, toilets, washing machines, dryers and so on. The construction of these new buildings imposes a demand on the planet's resources and calls for the consumption of a great deal of energy -- with a commensurate emission of greenhouse gases.”

You might not agree that dishwashers and washer/dryers are “domestic essentials” needed in every home, but technically he’s right about emissions and resources. Some housing may be more environmentally friendly than others, but it’s still going to use more resources than building no housing.

It also seems obvious that developing what would otherwise be green space -- a yard, a lot, a park -- is not great for the natural environment. That is probably what the “Woodside is a mountain lion habitat” campaigners were thinking when they pushed back against the state’s housing requirements, and they are probably right that if many of their large rural lots were fully developed, a mountain lion or two would be impacted.

But agriculture is also bad for the environment and no one is saying we should stop planting crops. People need food and people need housing. So what is behind these arguments that housing is bad for the environment, and to what extent is the housing debate an environmental debate?

My guess is that at least part of it is that the person who wrote this email, along with the Woodside residents and, well, most people I know, loves and appreciates nature. We vacation in beautiful places and visit parks and open space on the weekends. If we are sick, we can go to a local hospital that prioritizes nature because of its beneficial impacts on health. It’s not just that we enjoy nature -- it is good for us. Some people will forgo a larger home and opt to live in a van or a tiny home in order to be more immersed in the environment. The natural world benefits each of us, and we feel that, so people may be concerned that increased density could disrupt the environmental serenity we enjoy here.

A multi-family development in Palo Alto

But that’s a quality of life argument, not an environmental one. While it’s true that development and people and lights and noise and human activity disturb ecosystems, the impact is even worse when homes and businesses are spaced apart. From an environmental perspective, you want people to live close to each other and the services we use, and leave the rest of the land undisturbed. (1) People in urban areas use less energy, consume less stuff, and have a smaller environmental footprint. So where we need housing, the environment prefers it to be dense and walkable, especially when that is coupled with the expansion and preservation of open space and wilderness. There’s a good environmental argument that all new housing should be multi-story, multi-family, and walkable.

You could further argue that housing built in our area is especially eco-friendly. California has efficient building codes, relatively clean electricity, and a temperate environment. Building dense housing in California, especially if it’s populated by people moving from less temperate areas or areas with worse building codes and/or dirtier electricity is arguably a net win for the environment. So if the natural world had a vote, it would probably reject the spacious Woodside lots in favor of unpopulated open space and a denser downtown with multi-family homes for even more people.

In other words, housing may technically be bad for the environment, but people need housing, and the best kind of housing for the environment is dense and walkable. We could build only that, but not everyone wants to live in that kind of housing. Famously in 2016, a passionate advocate for denser housing in Palo Alto moved her family to a 2,700-square-foot 4BR single-family home with a two-car garage in Santa Cruz. Density and/or environmental considerations were not top of mind when she was choosing for her own family where to live, and the same holds true for many people. Workers commute to the Bay Area from Tracy because they prefer the housing there. What is good or not for the environment has little relevance in these decisions.

A multi-family development in Mountain View

So, I think any “housing-is-bad-for-the-environment” arguments are specious and a distraction from the real issues. The housing debate is about affordability. It is about equity. It is about quality of life. And it is about balancing those objectives. If there is a meaningful environmental angle to the housing debate, then I think it is just that people place a high value on access to the natural environment but it is getting increasingly expensive to create and maintain. Palo Alto has long been able to prioritize park space, a healthy canopy, spacious schools, and access to wilderness for its residents. Many beautiful multi-family residences were built with green space and gardens. Residents have stepped up with their time and their wallets to kick off and support valued initiatives including Foothills Park, the Baylands, Canopy, and the Gamble Garden Center. Going forward, how much can and should we continue to prioritize park space and green space as we add new residents, given the exorbitant costs of land and construction, with developers claiming they need 30 or even 40 homes per acre just to break even?

What do you think about the degree to which our local governments will need to balance adding more housing with access to and integrity of the natural environment? For example, should all new residences be multi-story, multi-family, 40 homes per acre, with relatively small amounts of green space, to reduce our footprint and improve affordability? Or should we have more open space in and near these new residences, and at what cost?

A multi-family development in Palo Alto

Notes and References
1. There are limits to this. Dense urban areas need to be able to process their waste and source their energy and water in an environmentally-friendly way. It’s possible for an area to be too dense.

2. One piece of good news for Palo Alto is that there are plenty of sites for new multi-family housing that do not involve building on green space. But how much green space should those sites have for the new residents, and how much should the city expand its park and school space?

Current Climate Data (September 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard

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Posted by STAN@OSTASSOC.COM, a resident of Portola Valley,
on Oct 30, 2022 at 8:33 am

STAN@OSTASSOC.COM is a registered user.

It's incredible how individuals trying to justify housing can expend so much hot air while refusing to acknowledge the obvious. The root cause that underlies these issues is PEOPLE - too many of them.
Our government's policies through taxation supports making more people. We should be doing the exact opposite. The more people in your family unit the more tax you should pay.
Until we are willing to address the root cause the problem of global warming along with associated issues like crime, hunger, environmental damage, food scarcity, wildland fires, etc will continue to multiply making our planet a less and less pleasant place to live.
At some point we may realize this but probably too late to avoid permanent damage to our environment.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 30, 2022 at 10:55 am

Bystander is a registered user.

This is dangerously close to saying that humankind is bad for the environment. We have lots of people in this world and they deserve decent places to live. Where these places are situated is a good topic, but the fact that humankind needs more than just shelter for their bodies to call it home is a fact of the 21st century.

From early times, people made messes where they lived. Many ancient artifacts are regularly dug up from what was trash heaps of the past. Commodities such as pottery, metal tools, etc. were only thrown out if they no longer could be used as their intended function. Otherwise they were used again and again. Homes were poor in design and it was only when such technologies as chimneys, opening/closing windows, sanitation and cooking improvements, occurred that the shelters became bigger and life other than sleeping could take place indoors. The improvements over time increased far more quickly as time went on. If we imagine the so called comforts that our grandparents enjoyed in their homes we can see how living accommodation has been affected by improvements in building as well as consumer durables for homes. When I was a child, all the fun activities were outside with my friends, now the fun is inside and the friends are on screens.

If we want to go back 100 years and live like our forebears we would still be harming the environment. We have improved so much in the last 50 years. But humankind will always need to have more than shelter to call our abode, home.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Oct 30, 2022 at 11:22 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

A lot of things are bad for the environment. You have to keep things in perspective and keep an even keel. When you take it to the point of extremism, you've lost all sense of reason, and most people won't take you seriously.

As far as more housing, I like the idea of open space.

Posted by Carol, a resident of another community,
on Oct 30, 2022 at 2:20 pm

Carol is a registered user.

Once upon a time we put all our eggs in one basket, Pearl Harbor. In one day the powers that be decided that was not too bright a move. Bases were then built up and down our coast (many have since been mothballed). Fast forward to today, high-tech companies wish to put too many eggs in one Silicon Valley basket. How bright is that? In order to facilitate putting eggs in this one basket, urbanization of our neighborhoods is what geniuses in Sacramento think is the answer. I am certain that all our enemies fully agree with them, a one stop technology location suits them just fine.

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Oct 31, 2022 at 10:41 am

Allen Akin is a registered user.

Actually, many people *are* saying we should stop planting crops, at least certain crops in certain places. Much of Central Valley agriculture is feasible only because of unsustainable mining of groundwater, and probably should be reduced or fields replanted with crops other than alfalfa and almonds.

Building more housing does damage the environment, so you can make analogous arguments: We should stop building it, at least certain types in certain places, and probably we should destroy all existing single-family housing and replace it with dense housing that uses fewer resources per capita.

But as you observed, environmental impact isn't the only factor to be considered, and isn't even the most important one. If it were, we'd all be living in hot-bunked corporate dormitories and eating gruel. "Dense and walkable" is only one arbitrary point on a continuum, and if you believe unlimited growth is a moral imperative, you have to acknowledge that you will need to go denser still. This situation already exists in cities throughout the world. "Dense housing is good for the environment" arguments are specious and a distraction from the real issues.

On the whole we're dealing with questions of values and economics: what we want our own homes to be, what we want our communities to be, what we want our environment to be, what is possible, what is affordable, what is an equitable distribution of costs and benefits, and who has a voice in the decisions.

Personally, I think the best path is to preserve what we have, and to build only when and where we can show we have the physical resources and the funding to do so. There really are limits to growth.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 31, 2022 at 1:29 pm

Alan is a registered user.

Through good design and urban planning, less resource-intensive housing should be made more appealing to people. Compulsion doesn't work all that well, but offering compelling alternatives do. I sometimes wonder about people living in houses, but letting their yard go to seed/waste; wouldn't many of them be happier in a condo with good sound insulation? But it should about creating desirable, less resource-intensive alternatives - pull rather than push.

Posted by tmp, a resident of Downtown North,
on Oct 31, 2022 at 2:22 pm

tmp is a registered user.

As the human population reaches a devastating 8 billion on the planet what is bad for the environment is more people. How you house them really doesn't matter all that much when faced with these numbers and their impact on the planet.

There is much contradictory evidence that dense cities really help the environment. In “Decoupling density from tallness in analyzing the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of cities" published in the Nature journal - The conclusion reached by researchers is that a chain of skyscrapers generates 140% more total emissions during their service life compared with an area with lower buildings with the same number of inhabitants.

Also human consumption of some consumables tends to rise in more urban environments while other uses decrease. It is clear that believing we can house billions more people by building tall cities is much worse for the environment.

Ultimately quality of life matters and it is clear that with continued human growth causing massive environmental changes, the ability to provide a decent quality of life for people on earth is receding as fast as the world's glaciers.

A simple example: While per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the US are down by around 20% in the last 25 years, that reduction has been erased by population growth. The U.S. population increased 68 million people during that period, negating the reductions and resulting in a total increase of greenhouse gas emissions of 1.2%.

If we had dealt with population growth at the same time we would be way ahead of the game! And the same goes with water quality and usage. It is ridiculous to tell us to save water while planning to add millions of people to the state.

Where is the goal of reducing population? The number of bodies that use resources and produce waste are very important and should be part of the discussion. Stop building the housing that adds density and overpopulation and leads to more environmental destruction.

Posted by Neal, a resident of Community Center,
on Oct 31, 2022 at 8:34 pm

Neal is a registered user.

@ STAN and tmp..... well said. Today we have election deniers, global warming deniers and now we have population bomb deniers. Pollution begins at conception. You can sugarcoat it all you want, but more people equals more environmental destruction. Everybody consumes, pollutes and over taxes Earth's natural resources. This is not sustainable. Our reckless reproductive habits are killing the planet. The most important environmental decision one can make is to limit the number of children one conceives.

Posted by Paly Grad, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Oct 31, 2022 at 10:08 pm

Paly Grad is a registered user.

It's possible that the need for new housing which the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) has expressed in their Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) is overstated. From April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021 the United States Census Bureau has estimated that the state of California's population has decreased by more than 300,000 and the population of Santa Clata County has decreased by more than 50,000. If this trend continues, the RHNA of 6,086 housing units for the City of Palo Alto may need to be revised and reduced.

Posted by Steven Nelson, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Nov 1, 2022 at 5:01 pm

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

@Paly Grad. It might be good to compute the percentages that that numerical decrease represents.
Those are real good estimated decreases. But 'off the top of my head' they are also small percentages.

A good purpose built multi-story condo, near a nature and park rich area / with public transportation / is not impossible in this area. It is rarely done or maybe rarely feasible in some part because of poor public transit.

I know the public transit systems in London and New York, NY were not built before each of these cities densified. Rather, the expensive dense transit systems were only feasible after the density was built.

Here, in my 3 decades, we have seen poor public plans like VTA light rail into low density areas. We have seen VTA run by politicians and ? unintelligent ? ? misinformed ? management staff. (the metrics on VTA are totally consistent with Bad, VERY BAD Management).

Posted by Eric Filseth, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 1, 2022 at 6:43 pm

Eric Filseth is a registered user.

A site I like is the Berkeley CoolClimate project, which has tried hard to estimate and include upstream emissions (CO2 from making your iPhone is properly yours, not FoxConn's), and map that to hundreds of California cities. They make a lot of assumptions, but find large variations in emissions-per-household across the Bay Area. A great set of charts, very worthwhile, at Web Link

Their data shows Bay Area CO2 correlates strongly to income, but very little to population density. Higher-income people, it seems, consume more of everything: cars, meat, goods, airplane flights, many others. Hayward is 35% lower density than Los Altos, yet Los Altos emits 60% more CO2 per household.

This article argues for moving people from sparse high-carbon areas into new RM40 housing in Palo Alto. Yet it's actually hard to find sparse areas that are higher-carbon than Palo Alto; and of those, many are even-wealthier enclaves like Atherton, whose residents might not choose a condo. What you want are people who consume “stuff" at low- or middle-income rates, but still have a high carbon footprint from driving a long way, don't own a Tesla, and can afford a town where even high-density housing costs $3,000+ for a new studio/1br unit (Alta Locale, ~RM90). That's an unusual combination.

Sherry Listgarten is right that to resolve this, housing must be subsidized, including implicitly through things like reducing per-person park space, by waiving impact fees; as the City now does for BMR housing like Wilton Court or the 231 Grant teacher-housing project. An economic purist might argue this amounts to residents paying people to move here, but I think most Palo Altans value socioeconomic diversity in town and support this, and more, for lower-income people. Whether we're also eager to subsidize tech professionals and other high-earners who pay market-rate -- and by extension their employers, who pay market price for talent -- is more complicated.

Posted by Paly Grad, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Nov 1, 2022 at 7:39 pm

Paly Grad is a registered user.


Thank you for asking. The population loss for the state of California from April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021 is small at 0.8%. However the population loss for the County of Santa Clara over that same time period is significantly larger at 2.6%.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Nov 1, 2022 at 7:44 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

All, thanks for the great comments. If I were to summarize, what I hear from many of you is: (a) there are tradeoffs between growth and quality of life (such as access to the environment); (b) there are limits to growth because quality of life decreases will be met with resistance (e.g., being asked to use less water or to share park space); and (c) it is not okay to focus only on changes that might decrease quality of life without also looking to decrease population growth. See comments from @tmp, @allen, @neal, and @stan.

A couple of comments in this vein…

It’s interesting to note that of late the population is not growing in the US. Part of that is because so many people died of COVID. (From The Atlantic: “Excess deaths accounted for 50 percent of the difference in population growth from 2019 to 2021.”) But mostly it’s that we have had a declining birth rate for decades -- at 1.7 it is well below replacement (2.1), and since 2016 we have had declining immigration. And @PalyGrad points out the net emigration from California specifically. So, you may get what you asked for, in which case we should probably figure out how to juice productivity, which is apparently headed in the wrong direction.

It strikes me that a lot of the “quality of life” discussion is about stuff. There’s generally less stuff per capita with more people. But what about less traffic with more local housing? What about it being easier to hire and retain city and school workers? And what about access to a greater diversity of people and ideas. Could these things in fact increase quality of life? As an example, consider the trend of younger people rooming with seniors. That is a win-win but it could increase population. Is it a bad thing, even if we have to use somewhat less water? I wonder what a discussion would look like if we focused more on what we might gain vs what we might lose. This is related to @Alan’s point of finding ways to make it a pull and not a push. For bonus ethical and moral points, how do we weigh what new residents might gain?

Right, not an easy topic. Some specific comments…

@Stan suggests that tax policies could be changed to disincentivize children. But what seems to really make a difference is educating women, making great jobs available to them, and making birth control available. See how birth rate is going down universally in wealthy/developed countries with these policies. I think children are already pretty expensive.

@Allen says that “Dense housing is good for the environment" arguments are specious and a distraction from the real issues. I don’t agree. We need to use our land carefully for many reasons, one of which is the integrity and health of our natural environment. I wouldn’t discount that reason or call it specious, especially given the biodiversity crisis.

Again, thanks for the comments, and for being thoughtful on a difficult topic.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Nov 1, 2022 at 8:07 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Eric, FWIW re wealth/emissions, my point was, holding wealth even, you reduce emissions by densifying. Building emissions are reduced (up to a point, see @tmp's point on skyscrapers), transportation emissions are reduced, consumption is somewhat reduced (less space for stuff), though that latter point is not super compelling since much consumption doesn't require physical space/storage.

So, in the context of Palo Alto, we are finding emission reductions with people who could have a less dense home elsewhere choosing (and finding) a denser place here. (Their wealth doesn't change.) When is that a reasonable thing to expect? It could be someone with family nearby or who likes the schools and parks so much they will commute out of the city (bad for emissions). But probably it is someone working locally who doesn't like to commute. I don't think that's crazy. I know I would sacrifice some living space farther away to get a bike commute.

But should the city enable my (new) home and bike commute by adding density? As you say, that depends on whether me and my bike commute and my new home is considered a net gain or a net loss (subsidy) for the city and its residents.

Posted by Allen Akin, a resident of Professorville,
on Nov 2, 2022 at 10:20 am

Allen Akin is a registered user.

@Sherry: "@Allen says that 'Dense housing is good for the environment' arguments are specious and a distraction from the real issues. I don't agree."

I quoted your phrasing because it's a consequence of your conclusions in the same paragraph: "The housing debate is about affordability. It is about equity. It is about quality of life. And it is about balancing those objectives." Environmental impact wasn't on your list (correctly so, I think).

With respect to quality-of-life: Traffic is a major issue for me. More local housing means more traffic, not less.

Census data shows commute trips here aren't eliminated by co-locating housing and jobs. 75% of Palo Alto resident workers commute to other cities despite the 3:1 ratio of Palo Alto jobs to Palo Alto resident workers. This makes sense mathematically for two reasons. One, the vast majority of jobs are outside Palo Alto. As people change jobs during their lifetimes, the odds are that most of those jobs won't be in Palo Alto. Two, the vast majority of workers are outside Palo Alto. The odds are that most jobs in Palo Alto will be filled from the larger pool of non-residents who are more attractive to hiring managers than the smaller pool of residents.

There's often an assumption that building local housing means people will move in from farther away, thus reducing VMT for commutes. That's not valid if people want a different type of housing than is being provided here, or if hiring exceeds housing development, both of which have been true in recent decades.

New housing generates new trips for entertainment, shopping, services, deliveries, and so on. If that housing is here, those trips are here; if that housing is not here, those trips are not here.

Building effective transit systems reduces traffic. Building housing increases it. Good urban design requires that these things be considered together. It's irresponsible that the State mandates one without the other, and without adequately funding either.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 2, 2022 at 11:16 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Quote from above "New housing generates new trips for entertainment, shopping, services, deliveries, and so on. If that housing is here, those trips are here; if that housing is not here, those trips are not here." Not if the new housing is replacing entertainment, shopping, services, etc. In fact without shopping, more deliveries occur because those of us living here are unable to get what we want without ordering online.

Entertainment is more than just restaurants and hiking trails. Shopping is being able to get the gizmo to replace a broken gadget when we discover we need it. When we lost OSH a few years ago, the ability to get a certain tool for a job or a piece of plumbing for a broken fixture meant that a Saturday job couldn't be done in a day while waiting for delivery of the part. Now that Ace has replaced OSH we can at least get the job done the same day. The bowling alley went not because it wasn't popular, but because "someone" decided to replace it with condos. That someone doesn't care about providing entertainment, just that housing is justified.

Well I for one don't want to live in a jungle of housing without amenities. Please let us keep our amenities so that quality of life can be good.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Nov 2, 2022 at 7:20 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Allen, thanks, your points about traffic make a lot of sense.

Posted by BobB, a resident of Vintage Hills,
on Nov 3, 2022 at 10:30 am

BobB is a registered user.

Housing as an environmental hazard is another "not in my backyard" issue, much like the water. People have correctly pointed out that it's not really an environmental issue at all but perceived quality of life thing. Building anything will impact that, so many people oppose building anything, including more capacity to supply water such as more storage or recycling.

Posted by Native to the BAY, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 5, 2022 at 2:09 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

What is an environmental catastrophe is the rise of capitalism and greed which has resulted in the un-homed un-housed, un-affordability crisis now wallopping our California residents, and yes like drowning in the Bay Area. The private property SFH real estate, tax greed has spurred a nonsensical amount of white bred "magical" believing in falsehoods like the "American Dream". For those of us living with less or nothing at all, it's a Hellish nightmare.

By the shear numbers we allow to sub exist, exposed to heat, rain and judgement on our streets, under freeways, along water ways, has been exacerbated by the "me gen" of 1960's Peace, love and music "boomers" These are those who bucked the Vietnam War, anti-nuke, and The Greatest Generation of "squares" . What's mine is mine, what could have been shared among many, is all mine too. Gross neglect and loss of social and cultural values is a bottomless cravass with no rope thrown down from the top of Everest have everything .

Posted by Dean Wallace, a resident of Stoneridge,
on Nov 6, 2022 at 5:08 am

Dean Wallace is a registered user.

Thank you for writing this very thoughtful piece. The title of the article worried me -- but I very much appreciate the fact that you used facts throughout. There is ample evidence that building along areas that have infrastructure -- such as freeways, transit, pre-existing commercial zones with water, electric, and road infrastructure already built, is both environmentally smart, and the far less wasteful than continuing to build out further and further into the central valley. Web Link

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Nov 6, 2022 at 9:37 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Dean, thanks for sharing that study. It's relevant to this discussion, for example: "Compared to typical greenfield housing development, our analysis estimates that households on commercial corridors (e.g., El Camino) would use 40% less water, drive 33% fewer miles, and produce up to 45% fewer greenhouse gas emissions." I think the challenge is making sure that these households have neighborhoods that they belong to, with shared schools and parks and retail nearby, so that new residents can be part of a community and strengthen the fabric of our cities.

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