Will Real Estate Agents Save the Earth?

I'm here at the Urban Land Institute expo in San Francisco with thousands of real estate agents, developers, urban planners, architects, bankers, public officials--and I'm learning a lot, some of which I'll be writing about at Shareable.net next week. 

In the meantime, I thought I'd share the news, some of it surprising, from the real estate industry:

  • These folks care about sustainability and walkability...now, anyway. Ten years ago, according to many participants I interviewed, sustainability was not on the agenda. They couldn't get a ULI committee started. They couldn't even get ULI to publish studies on the topic--too controversial. Today, I have not heard one person say that density scares people away or that sustainability kills jobs; quite the opposite. The question at hand, in almost every panel and discussion, is: how can we achieve density and sustainability, in the face of regulation that encourages sprawl and residents who think density hurts the environment?
  • Along those lines, quite a few planners and developers have told me that local environmentalists can be the biggest obstacle to achieving density --and thus sustainability. "People are against density because they believe that more people grouped together have more environmental impact," one planner told me. This belief is actually the opposite of the truth: shrinking the space that individual humans occupy reduces their carbon footprint--not to mention the size of their lawns, which need fertilizer and water, and the amount of garbage they generate. Many planners and architects are preoccupied with how to educate environmental and citizen groups about the many benefits of density.
  • First-time, Generation Y homebuyers are driving demand for walkable, sustainable, transit-oriented houses and neighborhoods--along with immigrants, who are often accustomed to high density in their home countries. Note: Gen Y is the largest generation of Americans in history, 80 million strong, and immigrants are the ones driving population growth in the US. These market forces are partially what's put density and sustainability on the front-burner for ULI's membership. These were major issues in panel discussions.
  • Public transit is coming back to Los Angeles in a big way. I say "coming back" because it turns out that LA had an extensive light rail system until 1963, when it was dismantled. However, since 1980, voters have been approving money to build transit and there is $2 billion is in the bank right now now for building an extensive public transit system. The effort still face huge obstacles--LA's public transit system sprawling and disjointed, it still only serves small part, and most places still require a car to get to--but the region is a hotbed for transit development right now.

Bottom line: Demand, technology, and the regulatory environment are converging to make shareable buildings, neighborhoods, and cities more desirable. As one speaker pointed out, “nearly half of what will be in the built environment in 2030 doesn’t even exist yet, giving the current generation a real opportunity to reshape the future of development.” 

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