The Contradictions of ‘Environmentally Conscious’ NIMBYs

Berkeley is widely considered to be one of the most environmentally conscious cities in California, and possibly the nation as a whole, not just by its residents (inflated with a sense of self-importance), but also by outsiders. It’s been at the head of a number of pioneering initiatives intended to address environmental issues, from declaring itself a nuclear-free zone to banning plastic bags to being a haven for the environmental movement and more. Together with other Bay Area cities, it makes up part of a nexus of environmental activism and awareness, part of the core that has driven California’s progressive environmental laws and culture.

Berkeleyites embraced urban farming, backyard gardens, and all the rest before they were even really a trend in the rest of the nation. Alice Waters was sourcing local food and regional specialties before they became a huge hit. Elementary school students on up were participating in environmental curricula, including after-school activities, as part of their educations long before schools in other parts of the country were putting serious thought to integrating environmental responsibility into their curricula.

Yet, Berkeley is also a rather affluent and sheltered place, in many ways. Go off the main drag, with dense student housing and an accumulation of colourful businesses intended to entice students with parentally sponsored credit cards, and you’ll find stately old neighbourhoods with nice Craftsman houses, beautiful old trees, elegant gardens. Many of these homes have been chopped up into apartments to suit a vigorous housing market, but not all, especially as you creep up into the hills, where the wealthier residents tend to settle to take advantage of the view and the Berkeley address. They are the generation of people who think of themselves as progressive, but have become very entrenched in middle class lives and values, with a very specific vision of what their world should look like.

Which creates a fascinating collision that can be seen as Berkeley struggles with subjects like urban planning, balancing the city’s urgent need for expansion with the obstructionism from the old guard. The fact that Berkeley needs more housing units and amenities is clear, and they’re going to happen either way, even if it takes time. The question isn’t whether these things are going to happen, but how. There are sustainable options, with long-term environmental issues in mind, and there are unsustainable ones, that will not benefit the city or the environment in general in the long term.

Here is the thing about sustainable urban development: It’s not necessarily ‘in character’ with the Berkeley look and feel. Dense development is the best thing for the environment, because it limits sprawl, and that means tall buildings designed around a central core, with an easily walkable area providing the services most residents will need. It involves an expansion of bus service to make it possible to live without a car (something many people in Berkeley already do thanks to the expense of maintaining one there—they rely on car shares and generous friends when they need vehicles for specific tasks), and it involves the creation of districts that don’t necessarily look ‘pretty.’

You can’t have nice Craftsman homes set back on lots with room for gardens. While these look very pretty, they are not efficient uses of space, even if they are designed to conceal multiple apartments. The footprint is large and the payoff is small; though these older homes are lovely in older districts of Berkeley, and I wouldn’t advocate tearing down functional housing, I also wouldn’t advocate trying to replicate that look and feel. Density, density, density is the order of the day; with environmental features like rooftop and wall gardens, efficient construction, and other measures to reduce the environmental impact of the structures as proposed.

Yet, proposals for developments of this nature have been staunchly opposed by many Berkeley residents, because they aren’t ‘nice’ like the rest of the city is. Even when it could be possible to reclaim empty or underutilised land, to expand affordable housing in the city, to revitalise neighbourhoods, people are opposed to it because, quite simply, they don’t want it in their backyards. They’re all for sustainable urban growth as an idea and in principle, but in actuality? When it involves, say, a tall residential tower obstructing their view of the bay, or more buses going past their homes? Suddenly they’re much less interested, because this requires a personal cost.

Abstract environmentalism, the kind that doesn’t require any meaningful sacrifice, is very popular in California. The situation in Berkeley really embodies that; people are more than happy to do things that don’t undermine their own quality of life, and to lecture people on what they should be doing to save the planet, but when it comes to promoting more efficient and sustainable urban development, they’re suddenly silent. Or they’re actively arguing the other side.

Berkeley is going to need to deal with its skyrocketing housing prices, homelessness, and other internal pressures, and it is going to need to do so quickly. Developers approaching the City with plans for sustainable developments that include not just density but a number of innovative environmental measures are absolutely doing the right thing, blending a mix of the need for housing with the need for sustainability and, of course, their own desire for profits. Several such proposals have been approved or have made it far through the planning stages before being soundly smacked down by the people with money, power, and a refusal to accept their share of social responsibility.

These contradictions, the Prius owners proudly proclaiming how environmentally conscious they are and then marching into a planning commission meeting to oppose a sustainable development, are patently ridiculous. Yet, the City seems reluctant to challenge them.