Some See A Missed Opportunity To Address Climate Change In The City's CodeNEXT Draft

May 1, 2017

The City of Austin has unveiled a new blueprint for its zoning overhaul, known as CodeNEXT – a plan aims to manage growth and transportation challenges by rewriting Austin's land-use code.

But critics say, for a city that prides itself on its environmentalism, Austin has failed to take into account one important thing in CodeNEXT: the future impact of climate change.

Building designer and transit advocate Seth Goodman says people usually think about reducing greenhouse gases by fighting big polluters like coal power plants or by adopting more environmentally friendly habits in their day-to-day lives. But, Goodman says, some habits aren't as easily changed.  

"There really is a third category that we should be talking about, and that is the emissions that are baked into our everyday lives, because of the design of our cities."

That’s where, he says, CodeNEXT missed an opportunity. He wishes the code would bring more density to Central Austin, which he says would reduce traffic, among other things.

“It helps a city have to pave less and provide fewer pipes, and it also preserves natural ecosystems by not sprawling over them," he said. "And, so, that preserves those ecosystems so that they can absorb carbon dioxide."

The thing is, the City of Austin says that’s exactly what it has done with CodeNEXT. 

“As we have more people here closer to jobs and other things, that can translate into fewer miles traveled," Jennifer Todd, a planner with the city, said. “It can also, through a variety of new housing types, accommodate a variety of people in smaller units, which are more efficient than large-scale homes.”

But Goodman says he's skeptical of those claims. He says he doesn’t see much density in the proposed zoning overhaul.

“It just doesn’t seem like it rises to the scale of the problem,” he said. “We’re kind of tinkering around the edges. In fact, we’re literally doing that because all of the new density, in fact the majority of it, is supposed to go on the edges of a neighborhood. It's supposed to go on the corridors."

Part of the reason might be that CodeNEXT  is, at its heart, a political document that tries to answer the concerns of people who want little or no change with others who want to embrace it.  

“We’ve heard critiques across the spectrum that the code is too dense,” Todd said. "You also want to balance out accommodating new people and growth with other factors ... [like] wanting to preserve some of the things that people love about Austin.”

But for Goodman, that type of compromise doesn’t really make sense when it comes to the impacts of climate change.

“The math is what it is,” he said. “Our politics can’t change that hard reality, and I think that we need to be realistic about what we must do in the U.S. to avert catastrophe.”

The city doesn’t plan on finalizing CodeNEXT until next year.