Guest columnists Kai Anderson-Flynn and Noah Leaf: Living more closely makes more sense

Downtown Northampton over Main Street. With a similar size population in the 1950s, most residents lived close to the town’s core.

Downtown Northampton over Main Street. With a similar size population in the 1950s, most residents lived close to the town’s core. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By KAI ANDERSON-FLYNN and NOAH LEAF

Published: 05-30-2024 4:10 PM

When one imagines the environmental impact of dense housing, the images conjured are ones of smog and cities devoid of greenery. This is in stark contrast to the traditional image of suburban single-family homes, with yards, trees, and open space.

However, denser housing is actually better for the environment. Although it is true that cities and denser areas release larger total amounts of carbon dioxide, they produce much less carbon per household than areas with less dense housing, even when factors such as household size are taken into account.

Higher housing density corresponds to lower carbon emissions per household. In the Boston area, many suburbs are responsible for nearly three times as many emissions per household as the neighborhoods at the center of the city. The same is true here in western Massachusetts, with downtown Springfield emitting half as much carbon per household as Florence and Leeds. In addition, denser housing allows more people to live close to downtown, making it easier to get there via climate-friendly modes of transport like walking, biking, and public transit.

Through denser housing, Northampton can reduce carbon emissions and become a more climate-friendly city. A more compact city is not an impossible dream of the future. In the 1950s, Northampton had almost the same population as today, but the city was far more compact. This meant there was far less need for cars and services were easier to access locally. Despite changes in the way that housing is developed today, we can still learn from Northampton’s past to inform a vision for its future.

Multi-unit complexes are much more energy efficient than single-family homes, especially with regard to heating. Multifamily housing usually has central heating, which is far more efficient than individual unit heating. Additionally, in multi-unit complexes, heat that seeps out from one unit, which in a single-family home would be lost entirely, often stays within the complex and heats other units.

Long before a resident sets foot in a home, the building process has already harmed both the local and global environment. The land on which the home will be built is cleared, destroying its ecosystem.

Materials for the home are harvested from a natural environment, again to the detriment of its ecosystem. These materials are then transported, often on gas-guzzling vehicles, to sites where they are processed, typically using energy-costly machinery, and then transported a final time to the build site. Finally, the house must be constructed using energy-inefficient machinery.

Building denser housing decreases the emissions from all of these factors. It takes up less physical space for each resident, requiring less natural space to be destroyed. It requires fewer materials to be harvested, processed, and transported per capita. Since housing for many people is built simultaneously, less use of carbon-costly machines is required per person housed.

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Based on the environmental costs of building and maintaining housing, it may seem as though we should simply stop building in Northampton. However, everyone needs a place to live, a need for which Northampton’s current housing market is often unable to provide.

Housing must be built, but to decrease the burden that it places on its natural environment, it must be built densely. Through denser housing, we have the potential to create a greener future for our city and for the world.

Kai Anderson-Flynn is an 11th grader and Noah Leaf a 12th grader at Northampton High School. They are writing on behalf of the Northampton Youth Commission, of which Leaf is co-chair and Anderson-Flynn is co-chair of the commission’s housing subcommitte.