12. How Zoning Can Help with the Climate Crisis

This show aired on Friday May 24, 2019 on PhillyCAM’s radio station WPPM 106.5 FM in Philadelphia. You can hear the audio afterwards as a podcast. The script is below. Produced by Meenal & Tanya.

Hello and welcome

Hello and welcome to Philly Talks Climate — where we talk about the climate crisis, how it affects Philadelphia, and how we solve this for our region. I’m Meenal Raval, and I’ll be your host. I’m joined this week by long-time friend Tanya Seaman.

With us later in the show will be [Tanya’s] friend Marcus Ferreira.

Last week we talked about…

Last week we talked about a new climate movement called Extinction Rebellion. One that started in the UK and has spread across the globe as people come up with creative and non-violent ways to highlight each government’s inaction on the climate, and the ecological crisis.

You’re listening to Philly Talks Climate on PhillyCAM’s WPPM 106.5 FM in Philadelphia

News You can Use

The news that caught our attention this week was an article, actually an opinion, published in The Inquirer — New City Council zoning bills should give pause on climate.

The author, Alex Schieferdecker, alerts us to two bills currently in Council that basically allow Council to override the zoning code. The result would limit multifamily developments and mandate more parking, at a time when the climate crisis demands that we live in more compact homes, drive less, and get around by walking, cycling and using transit more.

Cities are great places to live for many reasons — they are filled with a mix of people from many walks of life and they offer a variety of experiences. Did you know that cities are also important for climate reasons?

In cities, people live close together in smaller homes — in apartments, condominiums, and smaller homes than outside of cities. Philadelphia and a few older cities are filled with row houses. Row houses were built close together because they were built when people mostly got around on foot and by streetcar.

Smaller homes are inherently more efficient than larger ones, as they need less energy to heat and cool. In Philadelphia, with row homes and twins that share walls, we have fewer exterior walls that leak heated air in the winter, and fewer walls exposed to the scorching summer sun.

What makes cities work well is when they are organized so that residential districts are a walkable distance from commercial districts. In a city like Philadelphia, these commercial districts are usually ground-floor shops with apartments or condos above. In city-planning lingo, this is called mixed-use zoning.

Mixed-use zoning benefits businesses because they have ready customers living nearby. Mixed-use zoning benefits residents because they have places nearby to do their everyday shopping. In Philadelphia, we have this sort of zoning on commercial streets throughout the city. We also have job centers, as in Center City and University City, among others.

This density of housing and other development makes it possible for residents to work, shop, and socialize near their homes, and easily take public transit, walk, or bike to another location.

A transit agency like SEPTA works best in high-density places like Philadelphia, where there are enough people to pay fares and fill the buses.

So cities are great places to address climate change, because the people who live in them use much less energy to travel and heat their homes. In fact a map of the United States shows that Philadelphia carbon footprint is half of that of the surrounding suburbs. This is pretty consistent in dense cities across the US.

The City of Philadelphia has a zoning code that specifies what type of construction can be done where — whether construction can be of single-family homes, multi-family homes (like apartments), mixed-use construction, offices, and institutions (like schools and hospitals), and industrial use (like Washington Avenue with its construction-industry wholesale businesses). When someone wants to build or renovate a building, they have to follow these zoning codes, and must build the type of building specified by the code.

If they want to build a different type of building in that space, they can appeal and request a variance. The Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA) hears these variance requests and makes a decision. Unfortunately, our Zoning Board of Adjustments has been granting lots of variances, which means they aren’t following the plan as defined by the professional planners who work in the City Planning Commission.

There are ways that city planning can address climate change.

For instance, with good planning, we can ensure that we have adequate density to support people using public transit and active transportation such as walking and biking.

Car-oriented development typically includes lots of parking for customers and residents. Since the climate crisis requires that we shrink the greenhouse gas emissions from cars, progressive city planners typically do not encourage car-oriented development.

Parking takes up a lot of space and this space doesn’t have much monetary value as rentable space. When a developer is required to provide a certain number of parking spaces per housing unit (or amount of office space), the developer has to charge more rent or sell units at a higher price. This because the parking itself has less value than the housing or office spaces. Parking adds to the cost of housing — as much as $28,000 for a condo with parking. Forcing developers to include parking — or more than they would have otherwise — may slow development, which can push up the cost of housing. So much for affordable housing. It’s really the parking, not the density that is increasing the cost of housing.

Car-oriented developments can also be shopping centers or strip malls. The most difficult shops to navigate for anyone not in a car are those with parking in front, because pedestrians and cyclists have to navigate active driveways.

The easy availability of parking at your residence increases the likelihood that you will use your car for your shopping and other trips — and that you will drive to car-oriented places, generally outside of your urban neighborhood. Cars are expensive, and since most of their costs are up-front, it makes financial sense to use them as much as possible. But they aren’t practical in urban neighborhoods, and as we said before, they take up a lot of space.

Commercial districts that accommodate bicycles and pedestrians do better than those that only accommodate cars, as pedestrians and cyclists spend more money than motorists. Is this counterintuitive? Cars move at too fast a speed to see what shops have to offer, and they have to park; on the other hand, pedestrians and cyclists generally just stop and pop in to a shop. So, active transportation has local benefits to the economy.

Tanya: I should probably give my disclaimer now: For most of the 20 years I’ve lived in Philadelphia, my bicycle has been my primary form of transportation, and I’ve never owned a car. For a couple of years I commuted by trolley from West Philly to Center City. I started the nonprofit PhillyCarShare in 2002 as a way to help people have access to cars without owning them, for when a car was the best way to get around. It turns out — according to our members — most of their trips within the city were best accomplished by every other mode of travel than by car. And when they switched from owning cars to using our cars on occasion, they took public transit, they rode bikes, and they walked a lot more! The density of Philadelphia and mixed-use development make it possible and even easy to live without using a car very often or even at all.

There is much concern about gentrification, and what that does to a neighborhood. Some of the best ways to address this is to build MORE housing — in greater density. This means smaller housing units and more of them, which brings the prices down for each one. Also, removing the requirements for parking means that developers will only build as much as they think will sell. Sometimes this means there is no parking at all in new developments.

The provision of free or almost-free on-street parking interferes with making bicycling safe in our city. Cars take up one full lane that could be used for cycling and increasingly, scootering, through the city. For 70-some years, city planning has focused almost entirely on accommodating people who get around by car, and this attitude has continued to this day. There are efforts now with our Vision Zero Task Force in the Office of Transportation Infrastructure and Sustainability (OTIS) to improve safety for all street users, and to achieve zero traffic deaths.

Back to density and zoning. Some important ways to encourage the use of public transit is to ensure that the areas right around transit stations are zoned for high-density developments — both for housing and offices alike. This is called transit-oriented development. Ways not to encourage the use of public transit is to build at a train station and then provide lots of parking. Walking through huge parking lots to get to your home or office is not a friendly or stimulating walk. Increasing density around transit stations means more potential riders, which ultimately can mean more frequent service, which in turn makes it appealing to even more people. The City of Philadelphia could do much to increase transit-oriented development by increasing density or “upzoning” around our stations and along other transit routes.

Another zoning matter is garage-front homes. People who want to live in dense neighborhoods buy homes with garages so they can be guaranteed a parking space. Garages become “blank” wall space and are accompanied by a sloped sidewalk, which is not conducive to walking. In addition, motorists use driveways to make y-turns, which are dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists. Again, dedicated parking encourages driving, as there’s no on-street space to lose if you drive.

Recently introduced in City Council are two bills that address how our zoning code is applied in development decisions. The first bill (#190395) seeks to reexamine the 2011 zoning code that allowed for new types of buildings and reduced parking requirements. Some of the review will look at how the current zoning code enables gentrification; if it is responsive to the threats of climate change; addresses the supply of affordable housing; the suitability of the parking requirements; the effectiveness of neighborhood associations in representing their community’s concerns; the predictability and quality of construction and development; the appropriateness of existing height and density requirements, as well as use restrictions; and the performance of the Zoning Board of Adjustments. This is a long list!

For our discussion, let’s focus on just three of them:

First, two of the items go hand-in-hand: increasing density as with multi-family housing increases the supply of housing while keeping costs down, so housing density is good for affordability, and as we discussed earlier, is important for supporting public transit, active transportation, and local businesses. In fact, density of housing is an antidote to gentrification as it can keep housing costs down.

Next, let’s look at parking requirements. Requiring parking and including minimum parking requirements is the opposite of a climate-action zoning code, as it forces developers to build parking, even if parking would not be supported by the market. Parking encourages car ownership, as the availability of parking makes it easier to choose to drive than to get around in other ways.

The last one we’ll discuss is the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s granting of variances. The ZBA is comprised of appointees by the mayor.

The zoning code is meant to be followed and creates predictability in neighborhood development. The Zoning Board of Adjustment members are not planners, and yet they are making one-off decisions based on each development proposal. There’s no point in having a zoning code if it’s not being used. That said, if the zoning code needs to be updated to address climate change, then that’s where the changes should be made, not by the ZBA.

The second bill (#190382) limits the ability of the Zoning Board of Adjustments to allow variances. Many of the variances that have been granted allow multi-family housing in single-family districts. This is good for affordability, but the bill misunderstands this, and thinks that this will cause gentrification. According to an article in Billy Penn last year, a concern with multi-family housing is with litter. Considering what we know about how good density is for our city, perhaps the culprit isn’t multi-family housing but a design flaw that isn’t accommodating trash properly, trash collection that is leaving litter, and a lack of street cleaning after trash pickup.

One of the complaints against the ZBA is that it has not complied with a request for written statements to support its reasons for each variance given, offering little accountability for their decisions.


Here to talk with us about zoning in Philadelphia is Marcus Ferreira, who holds graduate level degrees in city planning and law, moderates the informative UrbanPHL discussion  group (with over 5,000 members), chairs the South Street West Business Association, is the Vice Chair of the South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA) zoning committee, co-chairs the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Tree Tenders’ Committee in his neighborhood, and is passionate about zoning. 

Hi Marcus — thanks for joining us to talk about zoning!

As you know, our show is all about climate change and how we address it here in the city. I’ve talked a bit about how zoning can do this. If you had a magic wand, what would be your priorities to address climate change through zoning, and what would be the short- and long-term impacts of these changes?

[you’ll have to hear the audio to find out!]

What would it take for the city to adopt these policies, and then enforce them?

[you’ll have to hear the audio to find out!]

City Council has introduced two bills that address zoning in Philadelphia. The first is meant to review the 2011 zoning code, and the second is meant to address the number of variances approved by the ZBA. Taking the first bill: What is your take on this?

[you’ll have to hear the audio to find out!]

The second bill seeks to reduce the ability of the ZBA to grant variances. What do you think about how they’ve been handling variance requests, and what this bill could do?

[you’ll have to hear the audio to find out!]

Thanks Marcus!


And now, how do we translate this to Engage on Climate Action?

When you hear about upzoning around a transit station or adding an apartment building, or you hear about a new development in your own neighborhood that will have very little or no parking, I hope you’ll think about the bigger picture, and how these developments benefit everyone nearby, and not just those who will choose to live in them — and speak up in favor of density.


Looking at our calendar of climate events in the region, this weekend could be a good time to connect with others grieving about our changing climate and the resultant fires and floods devastating most people across the globe, even in our region. Join Sam Rubin and friends on Sunday May 26th from 11 till 1 in West Philadelphia for a recurring gathering titled Fire & Flood: Grief in a Changing Climate.

Details for this event are on the Connect page at Philly Talks Climate.

Thanks for listening…  


  • Traffic Jam, James Taylor, 1977 — The song is inspired by an actual traffic jam on the Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles. Taylor ends the songs with a statement about “fossil fuels”. Lyrics here.


May 21 2019, The Inquirer, New City Council zoning bills should give pause on climate | Opinion, Alex Schieferdecker

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