Pasadena prides itself on being an innovative and welcoming city, and indeed the people of the city are truly wonderful. It is heartwarming to see signs in the neighborhood proclaiming that “Everyone is welcome here”. However, to match our actions with our words, we must resist the temptation to lift the development drawbridge. Instead, we should use our advantages of climate, location, beauty, and world-class technical institutions to benefit the general public by accelerating the city’s development instead of slowing it down.
In response to the massive housing crisis in the state, California state lawmakers wisely decided to force cities to relax zoning laws to allow the construction of more housing units. Pasadena will need to update its housing component and adjust its zoning laws to allow for the construction of at least 9,400 additional units of new housing over the next eight years. Instead of seeing it as a burden, we should see it as a great opportunity to further develop and improve our city. By focusing on urban infill, we can not only make the city more economically productive and generate tax revenue to build large public works, we can also make the city more accessible on foot, locate housing near jobs and create an environment where everyone can thrive without enduring overwhelming journeys.
While the idea that increasing density may be good for the environment may seem counterproductive, research indicates that it is not. Density means that people are located closer to each other and to their workplaces. It also means that infrastructure costs, which often change with distance, are shared by more people, which also makes them more economically sustainable. A recent UN climate report titled “The Weight of Cities” makes it clear:
“Optimizing densities and reducing sprawl also improve the sharing of resources (e.g. shared walls and roofs in apartment buildings) and reduce the distances to be covered by infrastructure networks (e.g. shorter pipes), allowing savings in materials and costs associated with providing services.
Paraphrased, there are economies of scale that arise from density that allow us to use the resources we have more efficiently.
Additionally, over the past couple of years, we have discovered how essential certain categories of workers are – including grocers, food distribution workers, nurses, hospital staff and several other city employees. Yet because our city has chronically underbuilt housing for decades, a disproportionate number have to commute for hours just to get to work. Do we believe this is fair to demand that the very people we rely on to survive in a pandemic be forced to endure horrific travel just so that we can preserve our aesthetic preferences of low-slung development? Of course not. We should aim to create a truly welcoming city, both for potential new residents and for people who are already working there but whose price is not in the housing market. The only way to do this is to dramatically increase the supply of housing by allowing for new development.
For inspiration, just look across the Atlantic to the major European cities of Paris and Barcelona, both of which have transformed over the past decade to become denser, but more beautiful. , less polluted and more pedestrian friendly. There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to be a similar big city as well, instead of persisting in the illusion that we are still a sleeping city (which was perhaps true a hundred years ago. , but this is certainly not the case today).
For an inspiration even closer to home, just look at the incredible transformation of Old Town Pasadena. As Marsha Rood wrote in her wonderful opinion piece proposing a new central district, Old Pasadena has been transformed into the busiest and most walkable part of town, and also the most productive on economically. The tax revenues from the development of the old town are regularly used to subsidize the suburban parts of our town and keep them afloat. This is because our suburban model is fundamentally unsustainable. It requires too much infrastructure and simply does not generate enough tax revenue to pay for it. By enabling more housing and business development in more areas of the city, we will ensure that other parts of the city can benefit from the vibrancy and economic sustainability of Old Pasadena. By building strong, interconnected and protected pedestrian networks, we can ensure that this happens without additional traffic or pollution. The cities of Europe have done this successfully over the past decade, and we can follow their example.
It is time for our city to stop viewing growth as a negative factor, embrace it fully and use it to transform our beloved home into something more beautiful and lasting than what exists today. No city can stagnate forever – either it grows or it dies. If we embrace growth and do it smartly, all of us, and our children, will benefit.
This was submitted by Prasan Samtani, Pasadena resident and software engineer at Google.