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Commentary: Increasing open space to fight climate change

By Bhavani Kirnak

In opposition to Mayor Catherine Blakespear’s mission of “Increasing Suburban Density to Fight Climate Change,” I propose the way to fight climate change is just the opposite: increase urban open space.

Consider Ian McHarg’s 1969 classic, “Design with Nature.” McHarg argues there is no need to restrict development, there is plenty of land.

Our environmental troubles arise from the way we organize development. We misinterpret “highest and best use,” wrongly evaluate our natural resources, and, blundering, fill inter-tidal areas, pave over farmland, and ignore opportunities to develop low-biological-value but highly buildable tracts.

Developing according to Nature’s suggestions would lead instead to beauty and sustainability.

McHarg’s principles inspired environmentalist visions of self-sustaining villages scattered across unexploited open space. These communities would cultivate arable tracts, confine building to proper substrates, and supply their own, eco-friendly utilities. Most prototype projects did not survive.

The ones that did survive, however, failed to deliver on their environmental promises. McHarg was ahead of his time. In the 1960s and 1970s, such ecotopian visions stood in contrast to the perceived environmental enemy, urban sprawl. McHarg’s vision conflicts with  “densification” — today’s name for “urban infilling,” the preferred 60s and 70s strategy to contain urban sprawl.

My proposition arises from my own experience. For decades, I have incrementally pursued Paramahansa Yogananda’s suggestion in Man’s Eternal Quest: “It would be good if each family had a small garden in which to grow some of their own food.”

Arriving at the present, I ask myself: Does not my Encinitas backyard contribute to controlling climate change? The food I grow doesn’t travel; consumes no fossil fuel; spews no emissions, and requires no wasteful packaging.

The garden absorbs runoff to create a cool, refreshing backyard atmosphere; feeds bees, earthworms, birds and other critters, and its principal by-product — compost — isn’t wasted. Compost builds the soil, leaving a living platform for my house’s next occupant.

The garden gives me something to share with others and might even inspire some to grow food themselves. But gardening requires garden space and densification preempts that.

So, what is to be done, in a city concerned with climate change, to still support an extraordinary, low-density quality of life?

Over time, I have seen Encinitas’ new homes get larger and lots get smaller. Given today’s average family size, don’t large houses — in excess of 2000 square feet — shelter fewer people per square foot? Houses like mine — 1,900 square feet on 1/7-acre — are getting harder and harder to find; yet, don’t they shelter just as many people as those twice their size?

So I ask: Has anyone considered land use laws that limit building square footage, and reward residential yard space instead?

Wouldn’t that put more stock of simpler housing on the market? (Accessory Dwelling Units or “ADUs,” are on the right track, but they excuse the owner from too many zoning elements: parking, drainage, etc.) Wouldn’t a little space between units enhance the quality of life, as opposed to the track the city is on now?

The state of California and our present mayor and council have aggressively pushed “densification.”

Encinitas is a bedroom community with no significant employment base and isn’t appropriate for downtown densities. “Densification” here never made sense.

But maybe, just maybe, the time for McHarg’s vision has arrived. Maybe an about-face needs to be considered. Maybe it’s open space, not density, which will combat climate change. Maybe it’s something as simple as family gardens.

While much more needs to be considered, we should start with new leaders, people who can offer a fresh look, consider practical consequences, and absorb feedback.

To make Encinitas an environmental forerunner, we need leaders who are not irrevocably invested in the “densification” status quo, who will engage in dialogue with the residents.

Such leaders will help us preserve, even enhance, the extraordinary quality of life which we have been privileged to share.

Bhavani Kirnak has lived in Encinitas since 1980. Kirnak holds a bachelor’s degree in urban growth management from the University of Oregon and a master’s degree in computer science from UCSD.

1 comment

JohnEldon July 15, 2022 at 4:29 pm

This is one of the best op-ed columns I have ever read. Thank you!

We can and should add affordable high-density housing to our existing urban cores and on our commercial and business corridors and centers, without defoliating and otherwise destroying our established lower-density residential neighborhoods. Unfortunately, we have to keep up the fight against the High Priests of the stack-and-pack infill movement and their “own nothing” acolytes. They do not want you to own your home, particularly the land it sits on. They are naive pawns of the big money real estate development and investment interests that threaten every desirable neighborhood. This is why many of us appropriate equate YIMBY with Wall $treet In My Back Yard (WIMBY).

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