“New York State has the lowest per capita emissions in the country. Compared to the rest of the United States, New York City has by far the best transit, and it is the only city where living car-free is the standard. Other cities should pursue more climate-friendly urban design, but New York City should lead by welcoming more people.”
New York City desperately needs to address its severe housing crisis. Plans to do so have been released by Mayor Eric Adams and City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, with Gov. Kathy Hochul expected to soon follow suit. These plans are primarily targeted at affordability. However, climate change should also be front-and-center. Ambitious, well-designed housing plans can provide major benefits for both affordability and climate change while also making the New York City metropolitan area a safer, more pleasant place to live.
New York City’s affordability problem is acute. Thanks to the stratospheric cost of housing, New York was recently tied with Singapore for most expensive city in the world. It is the first time New York City has ever achieved this dubious distinction.
The root of the problem is a massive housing shortage. For decades, New York City zoning laws have restricted new construction. That wasn’t a problem in the 1970s, when the city was losing population. However, the population has grown every decade since the 1980s and now has one million more people than its prior postwar peak. The affordability crisis is a matter of basic economics: the housing supply doesn’t meet the demand, so prices go up.
Public policy is currently restricting the local housing supply. There is a strong moral argument that policy should instead push the housing supply in the opposite direction. The reason for this is climate change.
Climate change is a quintessential example of a market failure. When people emit greenhouse gas, they exacerbate climate change, causing harms around the world. Heat waves in New York City, flooding in Pakistan, extreme weather across Africa and China—all of this and more is worsened by climate change. As the planet heats up, the harms become increasingly catastrophic. Those who cause the emissions are generally not required to pay for the harms; that is the market failure. It creates a moral responsibility for those who are able to reduce emissions.
Housing is one of the most important ways to reduce emissions. (Other important ways include clean energy, plant-based diets, and avoiding plane flights.) Small apartments require less energy than large, detached single-family houses. High population density also facilitates efficient transportation with walking, biking, and transit instead of private automobiles.
New York State has the lowest per capita emissions out of any state in the country. Compared to the rest of the United States, New York City has by far the best transit, and it is the only city where living car-free is the standard. Other cities should pursue more climate-friendly urban design, but New York City should lead by welcoming more people.
The housing shortage makes it a luxury to live in New York City. However, because of climate change, it should be a luxury to not live in New York City. It should be more expensive to live in car-centric sprawl than it is to live in one of the the most energy-efficient cities in the country.
It is difficult to put an upper limit on how much housing should be built in the New York City metro area. Mayor Eric Adams’ plan calls for 500,000 new units over the next 10 years. Adams calls this a “moonshot goal,” but it’s probably much too small.
For perspective, New York City added 630,000 people during the 2010s despite the severely constrained housing market. Meanwhile, the U.S. population is projected to grow about the same over the next decade as it did over the previous. The dual goals of affordability and climate change mean that New York City should plan for significantly more population growth in the upcoming decade. So too should the rest of the metropolitan area, especially Long Island, the lower Hudson valley, and southwestern Connecticut, all of which have been especially derelict in housing construction.
One might object that there isn’t enough space for so many people. That’s incorrect. There’s plenty of space; it’s just not being used well. Plans should focus on increasing density, especially near transit. Thanks to the rise of work-from-home, transit lines are currently running well below their pre-pandemic peaks. The cash-strapped transit agencies need new riders.
To ensure adequate open space for all residents, public street space should be reclaimed from private automobiles and used for local communities. The popular Open Streets program should be expanded. Planners should also study global best practices, such as Barcelona’s Superblocks. New York City should commit to ending the scourge of car culture, which inhibits people from imagining better uses of public streets.
Changes to public street design should accompany bold housing plans to build a cleaner, safer, more pleasant, and more affordable New York City metropolitan area. A better city is possible, if only there is the ambition to build it.
Baum is executive director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.