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You're Not an Environmentalist If You're Also a NIMBY

As both Berkeley and Oakland debate their downtown plans, there is growing recognition that the fight against global warming requires greater urban density.

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Global warming is changing far more than just the climate. It's altering the way environmentalists view development. For years, city dwellers who consider themselves to be eco-conscious have used environmental laws and arcane zoning rules to block new home construction, especially apartments and condominiums. In the inner East Bay, liberals have justified their actions by railing against gentrification and portraying developers as profiteers. But the lack of urban growth in Berkeley and in parts of Oakland during the past few decades also has contributed to suburban sprawl and long commutes. And all those freeways choked with cars are now the single biggest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the region.

Environmentalists who think globally say suburban sprawl and the destruction of rural farmland must stop. Indeed, the threat of the coming global warming crisis makes the growth of urban areas an imperative. And some activists who have fought developers for years are now embracing them and calling for so-called "smart growth" or "infill development" — dense urban housing near mass transit. And they note that downtown Berkeley and Oakland, along with the major transportation corridors between the two cities, are nearly perfect for transit-oriented development.

In fact, Greenbelt Alliance, an environmental group that has been fighting suburban sprawl for decades, recently pinpointed the inner East Bay as one of the region's top potential growth areas. In a report released last month, "Grow Smart Bay Area," the alliance estimated that the inner East Bay, west of the hills, could accommodate at least 106,000 new housing units by 2035. The group based its estimate on data from the Association of Bay Area Governments and UC Berkeley's Institute of Urban and Regional Development. "The truth is we just can't afford suburban sprawl anymore," explained Greenbelt Alliance's Elizabeth Stampe. "It just puts more cars on the roads, and adds to greenhouse gases."

At a time when new home construction has ground to a halt because of the housing collapse, the debate over urban growth may seem odd. But the market will eventually recover, and when it does, the pent-up demand for housing in the Bay Area likely will be substantial. According to a nearly finished study by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, consumer desire for transit-oriented development appears to be stronger than ever. "Even now, there is a lot more demand than there is supply," said MTC planner Valerie Knepper, who is leading the study.

But for the inner East Bay to grow the way it should, it will have to overcome the region's well-developed not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sensibilities. In Berkeley and North Oakland, in particular, liberals who view themselves as environmentalists have been blocking dense housing developments for decades. They have complained about traffic, overcrowding, and the potential destruction of neighborhood character. But among those who are paying attention to the causes of global warming, there is a growing realization that no-growth activists have to step back and look at the bigger picture. Climate change has forced a paradigm shift in the environmental movement. If you live in an urban area, you can't call yourself an "environmentalist" and continue to act like a NIMBY by blocking new housing.

In Berkeley, where NIMBY sentiment is especially strong, a group of developers and activists who advocate for smart growth sometimes refer to themselves as YIMBYs (Yes, In My Backyard). "Our goal is to shift the idea of what it means to be an environmentalist when living in a city, away from the protection of land to the more efficient use of land," explained Erin Rhoades, the volunteer executive director of Livable Berkeley. For several years, her group has been battling a small but very vocal coalition of city residents who simultaneously view themselves as green while staunchly opposing urban housing development.

During the past year, the war between Berkeley's NIMBYs and YIMBYs has grown especially intense as the city council has moved toward rezoning its downtown to accommodate more dense development. The council is scheduled to take up the so-called Downtown Area Plan on July 7, and again on July 14. So far, Berkeley's smart-growth forces appear to be winning the argument, as the council seems ready to approve a plan that calls for much more dense construction and taller buildings than the anti-development faction wants.

The Oakland City Council, meanwhile, is scheduled to debate its new downtown plan on July 7, too. But there are far fewer NIMBYs in Oakland when it comes to downtown issues. In fact, there is widespread agreement that the city's core needs to grow significantly. Yet in an ironic and unfortunate twist, Oakland's overwhelming desire to attract new development may prompt the council to approve a plan that could leave the downtown fallow for years to come.

Ultimately, the factors affecting whether either city succeeds or fails — and whether it helps curb greenhouse gases — are in the details.


Berkeley has been a national leader in the fight against global warming. Last fall, the city launched its innovative, municipally financed solar-power program. And in early June, the city council adopted an aggressive Climate Action Plan that seeks to greatly lower Berkeley's greenhouse gas emissions. And yet the current fight over a proposal that would help curtail suburban sprawl by allowing dense development in downtown has been fierce.

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