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Issues of the Environment: Achieving carbon neutrality in both housing and transportation in Ann Arbor and nationwide

Dr. Reid Ewing
University of Utah
Dr. Reid Ewing


  • Housing and transportation together account for around 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. (Source:https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions) To achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, we need to dramatically reduce vehicle miles traveled and make our buildings more efficient. Different types of buildings have different carbon footprints, but it isn’t just the design features of the structures that make housing sustainable (or not), it is also the lifestyles they enable. 
  • What impact do transportation and housing choices have on carbon emissions, affordability and livability? In partnership with the City of Ann Arbor Office of Sustainability and Innovation and the CCL, a panel has been assembled to discuss the topic at the Ann Arbor District Library on February 22nd. Experts will discuss considerations for designing low carbon, highly livable cities. 
  • Much of the focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is on transitioning away from carbon fuels, but experts in urban planning say that “fixing transportation” is not enough to produce the reductions needed. Technology that makes buildings more sustainable is another important piece, however what is often underappreciated is the need for a holistic approach THAT encourages car-less travel, while also increasing density with livable housing options. The panelists prefer to use the term “regenerative design” when talking about city planning for the environment. They argue that carbon needs to be a metric in all city planning due to the urgency of climate change.
  • One example of planning with the environment is Ann Arbor’s encouragement of transit-oriented development through TC1 (Transportation Corridor) zoning, which is intended to facilitate downtown-style development on major transit corridors. The city also has eliminated parking minimums for new construction, is encouraging (through relaxing restriction on) the building of accessory dwellings within existing housing footprints to allow more people to live close to the walkable city and implemented new rules to allow home-based businesses tohave a non-resident employee on-site.
  • Ann Arbor’s march toward a denser housing future has been met with considerable resistance from residents who worry the city will lose the character that makes it desirable in the first place. Even residents that are concerned about climate change are not always sold on the idea of density. The City of Ann Arbor Office of Sustainability and Innovation welcomes this panel of experts to educate those who are concerned as to the many upsides to regenerative design. 
  • Reid Ewing, Ph.D., a Distinguished Professor of City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah and a panelist for the upcoming talks, argues that The more we get out of our cars, the healthier we (and the planet) are. His research shows that Co-benefits: Measures of density vs. sprawl – found innovation, upward mobility, health are all better in compact areas.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair. Housing and transportation, well, they can account for 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions. So, changing to electric vehicles isn't going to help slow the climate crisis all on its own. The manner in which we build and retrofit our residential and business communities--that's vital to environmental sustainability. The nation's lead expert on this is Reid Ewing. He is a distinguished professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah. He's going to be our guest today on Issues of the Environment. And later this month, he'll be a featured panelist in Ann Arbor on the interplay between housing and transportation when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint. Thank you so much for the time today. I appreciate it.

Dr. Reid Ewing: Certainly.

David Fair: As I mentioned in the introduction there, about 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from housing and transportation. That sound about right to you?

Dr. Reid Ewing: Yes, it does. 30% from transportation, almost 20% from housing.

David Fair: I mentioned that most of the public focus has been on a transition to electric vehicles. But it's not just about what kind of energy we use to drive. Isn't it also about where we live and how much we drive?

Dr. Reid Ewing: It is. It's sometimes likened to a three-legged stool. One leg is the fuel economy of cars. Another is the carbon content of our fuels, which leads to, you know, EVs as a solution--partial solution. And the third thing is how much we drive. So, that's the third leg of the stool. And the metaphor that's used is a stool cannot stand on two legs alone. You need the third leg. Somehow, we need to somehow reduce vehicle miles traveled by automobile. So, we're going to reach our climate goals, which are very, very ambitious. You know, something like 80% reduction over 50 years.

David Fair: Which it is: a tremendous and aspirational goal. How important, then, is increasing housing and living density in reducing our carbon footprint to avoid the worst ramifications of the climate crisis?

Dr. Reid Ewing: Very, very important. A couple of things in the book "Growing Cooler: Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change," we estimated based on four different literatures that we could reduce carbon emissions by 20 to 40% by developing in a compact way rather than a sprawling way. And by that, we were referring to density, higher density, a mix of land uses rather than segregated housing over here and in shops over there, well connected streets rather than a lot of cul-de-sacs and curvy streets that you find in the suburbs, destination accessibility, things within walking distance. I live across the street from a cafe, and I can be there in 2 minutes and use it as an office. So, I work at the University of Utah, which is just minutes away from my neighborhood--so, those things. And then, the final D, they're called D variables, is distance transit, having transit that's accessible, as opposed to at some distance from you. We've got in this city lots of light rail, and we're building more. So, we have pretty good transit, destination accessibility. So, those five D variables--density, diversity, design, etc.--make a 20 to 40% difference. We're still a very autocentric country, even if we do develop that high density, but much less so significantly and from, as I say, four different literatures that we've looked at.

David Fair: We're talking with the University of Utah's distinguished professor of city and metropolitan planning, Reid Ewing, on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. All that you just described; I've heard a phrase used to kind of pull that all together called regenerative design. Is that exactly what you're talking about?

Dr. Reid Ewing: Yes.

David Fair: Are you applying the concept of regenerative design to the planning of new communities? And can it also apply to retrofitting existing municipalities?

Dr. Reid Ewing: New communities for sure, because a lot of our growth is going to be in new communities and greenfield sites. And so, we can do dense, diverse, well-designed new communities. But where I live, Salt Lake City, we're seeing land and all over the place. We're seeing a lot of redevelopment. We estimated in the book that I referred to that about two thirds of the development on the ground in 2050 would have been built in this century. And that sounds high, but we realize that we're growing as a population, which means more households, which means more housing and commercial properties don't last nearly as long as residential. What we're seeing in Salt Lake City is all sorts of redevelopment along our transit lines, where a defunct business park is converted into multi-family housing or mixed use--better still--mixed use development. So, two thirds of the development on the ground 2050 will have been built in this century, and that gives us opportunities for new development, which is greener and also redevelopment, which is much greener. We have an area called Sugarhouse that is just booming. It's our first streetcar, and all of this mid-rise residential development and commercial is going into what was strip commercial development. So, the answer is both. We need both to achieve your targets. And the targets are so demanding. I think you'd acknowledge that. 80% reduction by 2050 is impossible to meet unless you have all three legs of the stool, including reducing vehicle miles traveled and both redevelopment and new development--denser, more diverse, better designed.

David Fair: In the greater Ann Arbor area, there's a lot of work being done along the lines of what we've been talking about. But, among the community conversations is character. There are a lot of local residents that are all for creating greater housing density and reconfiguring the manner in which we live. There are also a good number of people who feel the town is losing its historical character and charm as a result. How do you propose bridging those attitudinal gaps? [

Dr. Reid Ewing: Yeah, that's the trick. The NIMBY syndrome is very strong--Not in my Backyard Syndrome is very strong. There's a developing YIMBY syndrome, which is Yes in my Backyard, understanding that we need to develop differently if we're going to achieve our climate goals. What we know from surveys that are conducted every few years, couple of years, by the National Association of Realtors, hardly an environmental group, is that a majority of Americans do want--a majority over half, not a lot of over half--one of lived in more walkable places in mixed housing, as opposed to large lots, single-family housing. And the first of the surveys was done in about 2013, and it showed that 56% of Americans like the idea of living at higher densities. But where you don't have to drive to everything. You can walk to the market, you can walk to school, whatever. So, there is a plurality or a majority of Americans who are willing to give up some space in order to achieve accessibility. What I guess you can't put dense mixed use development everywhere, but where we're seeing it in Salt Lake City is along our arterials, typically with single-family homes backing up to the arterials or in back, you know, a block over from the arterials. But the arterials themselves are getting the dense development. And dense, by that, we mean 100 units per acre versus three or four you find in the suburbs. And in that, 100 units per acre is not overwhelming. In height, it's five or six stories covering most of lots. And several of these buildings in the same area create a center. And another thing we know from all the research we've done is that centered, which is sometimes called polycentric development, is the key to regional urban form, where you have, in our case, a downtown, which is really our only major center right now. But we've got Sugarhouse, which is developing along that streetcar line with multi-family housing, mixed-use development, ground floor retail, apartments above. So, in an area like that, it's ripe for the kind of development you're referring to, and it comes very naturally. In other words, there is opposition, or there was, to Sugar House redevelopment, but the local officials had the guts to stand up and say, "We're going to invest billions of dollars and hundreds of millions in transit. We're going to have to have development patterns that take advantage of that transit availability."

David Fair: In the end, we as an American and human population need to undergo some behavior modification in order to avoid hitting the climate tipping point. In our country, we are most certainly about convenience. You see it in every aspect of our lives. Can the needed changes be implemented in a manner convenient enough to get to participation levels where they need to be and get it done in time before we move past the tipping point?

Dr. Reid Ewing: Yeah, it's interesting. I think the answer is yes, although we may have already passed the tipping point.

David Fair: Yeah, that's a subject of debate for sure.

Dr. Reid Ewing: Yeah. Some scientists believe that. But I think most scientists agree we have a little latitude, as long as we're moving in the right direction. The interesting thing is that the, while I've talked about transit, the second mode of transportation in the United States is walking. It's over 10% of all trips in these developments. I've studied, you know, Southern Village in Chapel Hill, Baldwin Hills in Orlando. In these developments, people use transit more than they do in the suburbs, but not a lot. What the mode of transportation that's second most important is walking. And people like to walk. They do it for recreation, to walk the dog around the neighborhood, and so on. I've got a restaurant cafe right across the street I walk to. So, walking is going to help us achieve our climate goals through land use and transportation. But that means things have to be within walking distance, and the walk has to be relatively pleasant, and urban designers know how to do that. There's so many good examples. We've got one coming in Salt Lake City called The Point, which is going to be a new city halfway between Provo and Salt Lake City. And it's going to be dense, diverse in terms of land uses. All of those D variables I mentioned before. It will be a national model. It'll have bus rapid transit and probably commuter rail. And, you know, these developments, which are popping up all over. And I assume in Ann Arbor, although I don't Ann Arbor well enough to--

David Fair: We have one called Veridian at County farm that the community is rather excited about. Yes.

Dr. Reid Ewing: Oh, okay. So, I didn't know that. But yes. Those developments are popping up. And the interesting thing is they are attracting a lot of home buyers. Our big master planned community is called Daybreak. And it's the number one seller of homes in the entire region, indicating that those preference surveys I referred to before are basically capturing consumer preference.

David Fair: And is it going to be kind of a generational change, where as we move beyond the boomer generation, that this will become a more acceptable form of living?

Dr. Reid Ewing: I think that will help. I think that the generations that follow the boomers are more receptive to urban living, which creates issues. Affordable housing is an issue.

David Fair: Huge issue.

Dr. Reid Ewing: Gentrification is a big issue. But the Gen Z's and millennials are more receptive to urban living. But even the baby boomers are downsizing. I have a sister in in Ann Arbor--a sister and brother-in-law in Ann Arbor--who just downsized from a large single-family detached house to a much smaller, detached house in a much more walkable environment. And so, the boomers, I think she's a little beyond the boomer age, but as they lose the ability to drive are going to need to age in place. And they're going to need to be able to walk to things. And so, I think even the boomers are going to come around.

David Fair: Well, I thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today and sharing your insights. Reid. I appreciate it.

Dr. Reid Ewing: It was my pleasure. Take care.

David Fair: We will look forward to the upcoming panel discussion with Reid Ewing. He is a distinguished professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and will be among the panelists on the connections between housing and transportation at the Ann Arbor District Library. That is an event organized by the Ann Arbor Citizens Climate Lobby. It's going to be held February 22nd. If you'd like more information, it's all available to you on our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and we bring it to you every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station. It's 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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