September 1, 2001
WENDELL COXWendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute
On June 18, the Sierra Club posted what it termed an "Environmental Impacts Calculator" to its Web site. The calculator allowed visitors to enter various data, including population density, and then generated Sierra Club estimates for resource consumption, travel, and infrastructure requirements at the selected level of density. These data were then compared to an "Efficient Urban" density of 500 housing units per acre and a "Sprawl" density, at one housing unit per acre.
Randal O'Toole (Thoreau Institute) and I (Demographia) were quick to point out that the "Efficient Urban" density used for comparison by the Sierra Club was well above the densities of the world's most dense cities. Our Internet posting noted the Sierra Club was proposing densities even greater than the "black hole of Calcutta."
It did not take long for the Sierra Club to recognize its mistake. By June 20, Environmental Calculator II had been posted, reducing the "Efficient Urban" category 80 percent to 100 housing units per acre," while adding a "Dense Urban" category at 400 units per acre, and an "Efficient Suburban" at 10.
But this did not solve the problem. At average U.S. housing unit occupancy rates:
The new "Dense Urban" category (400 units to the acre) would require residential population densities (commercial areas excluded) approximately 1.5 times that of poverty-stricken Mumbai's (Bombay) densest area, the Marine Lines Ward. The most dense census tract in the United States, in New York City, is barely one-half the "Dense Urban" figure, and this is for an area of less than 12 acres, approximately the size of San Francisco's compact new baseball stadium.
Perhaps most starkly, the new Dense Urban category is more than three times as dense as the notorious turn-of-the century (twentieth) Lower East Side of Manhattan. U.S. urban density peaked there at 120 households to the acre and even fewer housing units, because many families had to "double up."
The revisionist "Efficient Urban" category (100 units to the acre) is more dense than all but nine square miles of the United States (out of approximately 100,000 square miles of urbanization) and all but 45 acres in Manhattan. Even the 1.5 square mile 11th Arrondissement in Paris (the most area of the most dense western city) falls short of the "Efficient Urban" category. The new "Efficient Urban" category is similar to the "Huddled Masses" 120 households-to-the-acre record set by the Lower East Side in 1910.
The new "Efficient Suburban" (10 units to the acre) category requires, according to the Sierra Club, "row houses with occasional single-family dwellings and apartment houses." It is doubtful the average suburbanite would recognize such intense urban development as suburban. Perhaps it is time the Sierra Club's analysts visit a suburb to see what it is really like.
The reality is that affluent people do not live at densities of 400 to 500 units to the square mile, and few live at 100. Moreover, poor people seek to escape as quickly as they can, which is why Lower East Side densities have fallen by 70 percent.
The Sierra Club tried to limit the damage by attaching a disclaimer to Environmental Impacts Calculator II, indicating no endorsement of any particular level of density. However, as Denver Rocky Mountain News columnist Vincent Carroll put it, "why would the Sierra Club even suggest an urban density of 400 households an acre as a desirable goal?"
The case reveals the extent to which the Sierra Club is out of touch with reality. Its higher density categories would require adding between 24 and 124 housing units to the average quarter-acre suburban lot. Even Portland's policies, by far the most draconian in the nation, do not anticipate adding even a single housing unit to each lot.
In the end, Environmental Impacts Calculator II was withdrawn from the Sierra Club's Web site as "under construction."
But that was not the end of it. The pressure forced Sierra Club officials to climb down even further. In a letter to the editor responding to Carroll's column, the president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter wrote, "we do agree with Carroll and others on one thing--people should be able to live how and where they want" . . . a near verbatim quote from the free-market based Lone Mountain Compact.
But people cannot live how and where they want if Sierra Club-supported land use regulations "green line" large swaths of land out of development. It may be time for the Sierra Club to climb down again.