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  • Writer's pictureD. Pataki

Your local City Hall is the most important climate battleground of 2023

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

Many of the key decisions that will stop climate change can't be made in Congress, the UN, or the C suite. They're being made in your city and town right now.

Are you a proponent of NIMBY, YIMBY, or none of the above? If you haven't thought much about local zoning and land use issues, the time to do so is definitely now. As Joan Meiners recently described in a thorough piece in the Arizona Republic, the dual heat wave and housing crises of 2023 are colliding in the Phoenix area this summer. We need more housing now, and the details about if, where, and how new housing will be built, and existing housing will be retrofitted, will make an enormous impact on the future of climate change.

Heat and housing graphic from the Arizona Republic

If you're worried about climate change you've probably given a lot of thought about how to reduce your carbon emissions. Shouldn't we all drive less, live in more energy efficient housing, and convert our electricity generation to solar and renewable sources? Absolutely - but much of the time, our choices in all of those areas are pretty limited. If you don't live in a city with good public transportation and you live far from work, you probably have to drive every day. Electric cars are expensive, and so is housing in or near most central business districts. When it comes to renting or purchasing highly energy efficient apartments and homes, there are even fewer options.

These days it's very popular to blame our lack of sustainable infrastructure on big corporations and the federal government. While those institutions do have a lot of power, the truth is that many of the decisions about what type of transportation and housing developments to allow are made very locally. Will affordable, high density apartments or condos be built in your neighborhood? Will bike lanes be added to the roads? Will building codes include climate change mitigation measures like energy efficiency and EV charging requirements? Your local land use commission and city council will decide.

Here's the good news: in all likelihood you have an enormous influence on local decision-making. The vast majority of urban residents never show up to council meetings, contribute to public comments, fill out local surveys, or talk to local officials. The few people that do have an outsized influence on the outcomes - hence the success of the NIMBY movement.

As Reihan Salam recently wrote in the Atlantic, YIMBY, the counter-approach to NIMBY, has not been very effective in getting dense and affordable housing developments approved either. Conflicts about urban density and transportation tend to pit groups of residents against each other, when in the end, everyone simply wants to make sure their town or neighborhood is a good place to live now and in the future.

As the 2023 heat wave just showed, stopping climate change in its tracks is a crucial part of keeping cities livable. So listen to your neighbor's concerns about why they might be against climate-friendly housing or transportation, and then show up and make your own voice heard. In all but the biggest cities, U.S. town and city governments are almost always accessible and approachable - if you write to a city official or council member, you will usually hear back with a personal note or invitation to meet. And for key meetings about zoning, development, or building code decisions, your voice during the comment period might very well make all the difference.

Do you think our cities would be transformed if everyone who cared showed up and expressed their support of climate-friendly and affordable development to local government? I think that's a very real possibility, and I hope it's an experiment we all get to witness very soon.

Downtown Tempe, Arizona viewed from Phoenix


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