How to make the ‘Green New Deal’ good for cities

How can New York benefit from the Green New Deal?
How can New York benefit from the Green New Deal?
littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock
How can New York benefit from the Green New Deal?

How to make the ‘Green New Deal’ good for cities

Although the resolution’s sponsor represents New York City, it doesn’t emphasize urbanism – yet.
April 18, 2019

It isn’t often that a freshman member of the House sets a major portion of the national political debate, but – by adding her star power to the movement for a “Green New Deal” – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has done just that. Support for the Democrat’s Green New Deal resolution has become a litmus test issue for progressives, a favorite punching bag of conservatives and a likely component of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee’s platform in 2020.

So why doesn’t the Green New Deal have a program for promoting energy-efficient urban living? Ocasio-Cortez represents one of the most diverse, densest – and, therefore, one could say most urban – districts in the country. And yet, as the pro-urbanism grassroots advocacy network Strong Towns wrote about the Green New Deal on its blog, “The proposal is sweeping. It’s idealistic. And, we can’t help but notice, it doesn’t really talk about one of the biggest factors in carbon emissions: urban land use.”

But it still could adopt a robust platform to reverse 70 years of federal policy that has favored suburbs over cities and incentivized environment-destroying sprawl. By doing so, it would help Ocasio-Cortez’s district, the rest of New York City and other cities in New York state.

Thus far, the Green New Deal is just broad outlines of a policy to mitigate climate change, laying out goals like the swift decarbonization of the energy sector. It was pushed onto the congressional radar by the youth-driven Sunrise Movement, which aims to stop climate change. Ocasio-Cortez, in drafting the resolution, largely followed the group’s framework, which talks a lot about switching to clean energy, creating “green jobs” like building windmills and solar panels and helping fossil fuel industry employees find new a line of work. The latter two points are as much about politics as policy. As Vox’s David Roberts wrote when the congressional resolution was introduced in February: “Proponents are spooked about being seen as anti-rural, which is why these kinds of plans from the left always include education, training, and transition assistance for rural communities hurt by decarbonization. And that’s great. But they should also remember that their core demographics live in cities and are engaged in urban issues. Cities are central to any vision of 21st-century sustainability.”

This is because America’s development pattern since World War II has led to higher levels of energy consumption and higher greenhouse gas emissions than in most other developed countries. The United States has one of the highest rates of emissions per capita: more than twice as high as the United Kingdom’s and over three times the rate of France. This is, in part, because Americans have been pouring out of inner cities and into low-density suburbs, where they drive everywhere and live in larger, detached houses that consume more energy. Every new mile of road and every new subdivision or strip mall replaces natural carbon sinks like forests, fields and wetlands. While a few cities, including New York City, have recovered the population they lost, other older cities – even thriving ones such as Washington, D.C., and Boston – but especially post-industrial cities, including Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester, remain far below their peak populations.

In 2015, scientists at Boston University studied the relationship between urban density and the carbon emissions that cause global warming. They noted, “The United States, with 5% of the world’s population and 30% of the world’s automobiles, emits 45% of global transportation CO2 emissions.” They determined that this is largely the result of two phenomena: American communities are often too spread out to get around without driving, or they are designed in a way that forces driving in dense environments – for example, due to lack of public transit, lack of sidewalks or because housing and shopping are far apart.

New York City, as the city’s densest and most transit-rich city, is far more eco-friendly than its suburbs. A 2014 study from the University of California, Berkeley, found the average Manhattan household’s carbon footprint was half of the average household’s footprint in Great Neck on Long Island. There were similar disparities in environmental impact between San Francisco or Chicago and their respective suburbs. While the Green New Deal talks about retrofitting buildings to make them more energy-efficient, which is certainly a worthy endeavor, a 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that densifying cities has even more of a climate-protection benefit.

But, so far, the Green New Deal’s only mention of these issues is a call for “investment in zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing, clean, affordable, and accessible public transit, and high-speed rail.” That has likely benefits for cities in New York, as they could get federal funding for expanding or upgrading their transit systems. High-speed trains connecting the cities of Central and Western New York to the coasts would also have economic benefits for those regions.

But public transit is mostly used only when riders can get from their home to a transit stop and from there to their final destination without driving. Europeans, like New York City residents, don’t solely substitute mass transit for driving: They also walk or bike to shopping, dining and to visit friends. All of that requires dense, walkable communities.

So, the Green New Deal could propose to reverse federal policies that have encouraged metro areas to sprawl outward instead of build upward. In 2013, the advocacy organization Smart Growth America released a report measuring subsidies for sprawl, mostly through the tax code, finding they reached a total of $450 billion per year. The largest, by far, was the mortgage interest deduction. By making what one pays for buying a home largely tax-deductible, this favors new construction in suburbia, since city dwellers are more likely to rent or to spend less on an older house but put the difference into renovating it. “Support for multifamily rental opportunities makes up only 15 percent of total housing support, despite the fact that 32 percent of U.S. households are renters,” Smart Growth America reported. This also amounts to a subsidy for the affluent at the expense of the urban poor.

Given the crippling cost of housing and the lack of funding for maintenance or construction of public housing, Ocasio-Cortez could advocate for fairness to her constituents in New York City by inserting a provision in the Green New Deal that phases out the mortgage interest deduction and other subsidies for buying houses and directs the savings toward building new affordable, dense public housing near mass transit and upgrading existing affordable developments, including NYCHA’s beleaguered housing stock.

Relieving the pressure of housing costs in New York City and increasing density doesn’t only have to happen within the city itself. The Green New Deal could create incentives for suburbs to upzone around transit hubs, such as commuter rail train stations on the Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road, to allow the development of reasonably priced rental buildings. And then there’s the flip side of mass transit investment: Currently, the federal government heavily subsidizes highway construction by handing out money to state departments of transportation to spend in whatever inefficient way they choose. As Streetsblog USA wrote in 2015, “50 percent of existing roads don’t carry enough traffic to generate gas taxes sufficient to pay for their own maintenance … the level of subsidy is disturbing. The last thing we need is more money-losing roads to maintain.”

Changing federal transportation funding formulas to favor projects that spend money more efficiently – not just favoring transit over roads but favoring roads that serve dense population hubs and are built to accommodate bicyclists, pedestrians and bus or rail lines – would benefit older cities such as those in New York, reduce emissions and remove a perverse subsidy for sprawl. The federal government also could finally raise the gasoline tax, which provides the revenue stream for federal transportation spending but hasn’t gone up in 25 years, to keep pace with inflation. A carbon tax, on which the Green New Deal is silent, would also force sprawling suburbs to cover more of the social cost of their climate pollution, and make urban living more attractive in comparison.

Ocasio-Cortez has become as much a tribune of the national progressive movement as her district or hometown. But if she adjusts her proposal, there shouldn’t be conflict between those two roles.

Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.
20190619