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Sierra Club: Demographics of urban density can negate carbon gains

Consumption patterns of more affluent people may offset carbon savings


Cities around the country are considering the climate benefits of increasing urban density.  Packing people closer together in smaller, more energy-efficient housing while adding bike lanes, light rail, and other mass transit, the thinking goes, gets cars off the road, reduces lawns, lawnmowers, strip malls, and other environmental challenges that stem from urban sprawl. Urban infill and densification, studies show, is the cornerstone of reducing the carbon footprint of cities.


But a new paper in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research suggests that city planners and developers need to make sure these greener, walkable, energy-efficient neighborhoods aren’t just reserved for the affluent. Affordable housing needs to be a central part of the planning—otherwise, the study suggests, the demographics of the people moving into these improved, dense urban areas could negate those carbon gains.


Jennifer L. Rice of the geography department at the University of Georgia began wondering about the unintended consequences of density while studying how gentrification in Seattle was changing the neighborhoods around Amazon headquarters—in particular South Lake Union. In recent years, that area has become a green-living hub—a walkable neighborhood near mass transit with relatively dense, energy-efficient apartments and flats. As younger, more educated and more affluent tech workers moved in, housing prices spiked, pushing many people, including non-white resident, out of the area and in many cases out of the urban core of the city. The newer residents are often attracted by what they see as a greener style of living, including the ability to ditch their cars and take up less space and energy.


But previous studies show that the consumption patterns of more affluent people generally have a larger carbon footprint than those with smaller incomes, even if they perceive themselves as eco-conscious. That’s because people with more money tend to take more trips on airplanes, have more appliances and gadgets that use more energy, take up more space, eat more meat and imported foods, and drive their cars more than less wealthy residents. That, the study authors suggest, could either keep the carbon benefits of density flat or even increase the carbon emissions of some dense neighborhoods in a process they’re calling “carbon gentrification.”


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