Opinion | Why single family zoning exacerbates the Climate crisis

Increasing urban density and forgoing car culture will lead to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

If local lawmakers, such as the ones sitting on the Iowa City City Council, want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, local land use regulations must change. 

To accomplish this, local lawmakers need to abolish single family home zoning. 

When a municipality determines how land is used, they regulate that land use with zoning laws. These zoning laws dictate what can and cannot be built in certain areas. 

Single family zoning marks off certain areas for large homes only, thus excluding multiplexes, apartments, businesses and restaurants from a particular neighborhood. This type of zoning, along with the building of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, has contributed to the rise of suburban towns. 

These towns are characterized by large pristine houses, sprawling road infrastructure, and lack of density, which in turn leads to people living in these towns to utilize cars over more climate friendly methods of transportations such as public transport, cycling, or walking. 

Furthermore, the houses in single family zones contribute significantly to high greenhouse gas emissions. These houses are poorly designed when it comes to conserving heat. Thus, in the winter, single family homeowners have to rely on natural gas for heating as well as cooking, directly polluting CO2 into our atmosphere. 

To put this into a quantifiable number, localities that emphasize the need for low density produce four times the amount of emissions compared to urban areas. 

That is because mixed use neighborhoods with a focus on density are significantly more environmentally friendly compared to suburbs. This is largely accomplished through two ways. 

First, those living in densely populated centers do not need their cars to get around and conduct errands. 

To use a personal example, because I live in downtown Iowa City, I do need access to a car to go grocery shopping or go to class. Instead, I can make the 15-minute walk to the main campus or Target. If I need to head to Coralville for some shopping at the mall, I can utilize the bus system. 

To put it simply, because density emphasizes walkability, those that live in urban cores have a significantly lower footprint than people who chose to live in suburban centers. 

Second, multi-family homes take up significantly less energy than detached single family ones. This is because multi-family homes have shared walls that are able to store heat. Therefore, those living in apartments do not have to use gas powered heating in the wintertime. 

When it comes to climate change, activists will readily blame oil companies and capitalism for the state of our environment. However, this is a superficial and, frankly, devoid way of thinking. 

ExxonMobil does not pollute for the sake of polluting. They do it because Americans are addicted to their cars and have a high demand for gasoline. Changing the way we structure our neighborhoods could take us off our fossil fuel dependency. 

To do this, Iowa City City Council members must take the important step to rezone certain areas on the zoning map and increase density in areas where there are too many single-family homes.