Sustainable Communities or the Next Urban Renewal?

Published: 2020 | Moira O’Neill, Giulia Gualco-Nelson, Eric Biber | Ecology Law Quarterly


California has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to address climate change. But in California, the sector that produces the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation, and reducing those emissions depends on reducing total vehicle miles traveled (VMT). And that, in turn requires rebuilding urban and suburban areas in California to become less car-centered and more oriented around mass-transit and walkable neighborhoods: transit-oriented infill development (TOD). Critiques of the transition from sprawl to TOD raise concerns that TOD is pushing low-income communities out of our urban core and into to exurban areas. A key question is the role of local versus state control over land use in addressing the dual challenges of climate change and the state’s housing crisis. To address this debate, we built a first-of-its-kind data set that examines entitlement, or the local approval process to obtain a building permit, in relationship to present day zoning as well as historical discriminatory land use policy. We find that local government choices about zoning reflect past racial discrimination around land use, directing dense TOD almost entirely into neighborhoods that were subject to those discriminatory practices.