Raleigh is growing and for a long time, our status quo has been to grow out vs. up. Notably in our southern town that’s still coming into it’s own as a city and a destination, the word density kinda gives some folks the jeebers. But we moved here for trees, they’ll say. For the green vantages and the lush landscapes. We did, too! In fact we want even more of it than we are posed to have now, which is why we’d like to make the case to density to y’all today. We hope you’ll stick around for the length of this article – especially if you think what we’re about to say is hoo nanny, because if there is one thing our group is founded on, it’s the idea that conversations, dialogue and different vantages are our communities greatest strengths and not our greatest divisions.
Density in our urban core and along our transit corridors will be vital if we wish to create a sustainable trajectory and growth model for our community. Currently in Raleigh, the average household drives – a lot. A quick informal poll as a test bed for this. How do you personally get to the grocery store? School? Work? The vast majority drive and although many indicate that they’d like to bike or walk or take transit for these daily tasks, the reality right now is that our built environment simply doesn’t allow it. It’s not feasible and often not safe. The only way we can ever encourage a future that reduces our dependency on cars is if we embrace density and lean in to the attributes it provides making a multi-modal reality possible.
Critical to growing well is a transportation system that is equitable by design and provides mobility and access for all of our community and all of our people. As downtown grows, the only way it can grow equitably is through providing a wealth of mobility solutions and providing options outside of car ownership as the only model for economic advancement. Notably, right now “non-college degree, low income people in Raleigh, North Carolina have longer commutes than their college-educated, higher income neighbors” according to Commutes Across America. Another study, here, specifically looks at how important good transit infrastructure is to providing economic advancement and mobility. Looking at critical hubs like our downtown core, when we emphasis car ownership as our index for access we are systematically preventing inclusivity by telling people in order to benefit from our economic growth – you must have access to a vehicle for your daily mobility needs.
Dense urban locales reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled through providing access to our daily trips without the need for a car. For a point of reference, the annual VMT in the most urban locale in United States (DC) is 5,089 miles per person. In North Dakota, the nation’s most rural, annual VMT is 13,377 miles, almost triple the amount of miles driven. As Raleigh shifts from a suburban model to embrace more dense growth, we are enabling a future where we can reduce our VMT and work to allow residents to choose a more environmentally friendly lifestyle that doesn’t depend on a car to get everywhere. Notably, this also allows for a more equitable growth model as it doesn’t require residents to own a car in order to advance themselves economically. What’s more, dense urban growth allows for a lower carbon footprint on a per capita basis. In fact this study from Berkeley provides a sobering study showing how all gains in carbon reduction realized through urban dwelling in metro areas is quickly off set by the immense suburban emissions. If Raleigh wants to get serious about equity, economic opportunity and emissions – assessing our transportation model and creating a dense urban center will be critical to that.
In Raleigh, our transportation emissions are our second largest sector for GHG emissions (42% of total emissions), so it makes sense that urban environments take a strong lead here since they are organically less car dependent. It makes even more sense when you factor in how much more efficient urban housing is than it’s suburban counterpart. To start out, urban dwelling is by definition, more compact. Housing units are smaller and in a downtown core, clustered on top of each other, leading to less energy usage through gains with shared walls and / or ceilings. The EPA states: “Housing type is also a very significant determinant of energy consumption. Fairly substantial differences are seen in detached versus attached homes, but the most striking difference is the variation in energy use between single-family detached homes and multifamily homes, due to the inherent efficiencies from more compact size and shared walls among units”.
The EPA thinks these efficiencies correlate so much with lower environmental impact that they’ve actually coined a term for it “location efficiency”. Let’s look at two eco-family households that both drive a Prius but one lives in a Single Family Home and the other in Multi-Family. The energy efficiency gains are so significant in the attached vs. detached model that they have nearly double the impact when a household chooses a dense configuration vs. suburban. The EPA study states, “Drive a Prius and insulate your single family home and you can cut your energy consumption by 34%. Go for an efficient multifamily home and car in a transit friendly area and you cut your energy 64%”
Considering that stationary energy, or building energy, accounts for 56% of energy usage in the City of Raleigh – that’s compelling to us. If we wish to reduce our carbon impact, we need to change the way we build our communities. Density provides the answer to that: more walkable / bikable / transit oriented locales and more efficient building design, all in one. If we’re serious about climate change, density is a serious solution for that. Anything else is largely blowing smoke guys.
This is not a vendetta against single-family homes, or even the burbs. It’s no ones fault that we have the system we do and we’re all bi-products of the environment that is around us and the land-use that’s been prescribed for decades. Rather, we hope through reading this you’re inspired to think differently about the potential for our built environment moving forward and help us, as a shared community, think differently about how we can grow in an equitable and sustainable way in the future.
We feel it’s important to bring a few things to the forefront of our conversations as a community as we consider how we grow and most importantly, who is considered in that growth. Folks that have been at the table for a long time in Raleigh should continue to have that opportunity, but as our community changes it is critical that we make our table bigger, otherwise, by definition, folks will be left out of the critical conversations on our growth and our future. Presently when we systematically say we don’t want density, we are saying we don’t want others to have the same advantages we have been afforded by calling Raleigh home. We’re saying Raleigh is full and if that’s the vantage we take then Raleigh is creating a trajectory that ensures it’s own demise. The only way our city can succeed and remain competitive is through embracing change, leaning in to it, and working as a community to identify how we can create mutual advantages from these changes.