“ ‘Smart Growth’ is like buying a first-class ticket on the Titanic” — Al Bartlett

We’ve all seen it across the state — packed trails, packed ski lifts, packed restaurants, packed highways, and packed-in housing. You’d think it’d be enough for people to start packing to leave, but the opposite seems to be true. Colorado continues to grow and display a lot of growing pains.

There’s a trend in Colorado to promote high-density housing, as an alternative to single-family homes, in order to try and squeeze more people into towns and cities at a lower price with hoped-for lower environmental impacts.

In fact, the Governor’s Office in Colorado is promoting high-density housing and even President Biden’s recent infrastructure bill added incentives for high-density housing. Some proponents of high-density housing even claim that it’s a type of “climate action.”

If you’re skeptical that Colorado could grow itself out of climate change — and even grow and reduce overall environmental impacts — your skepticism is well-placed. Let’s take a more critical look at the issue.

The claim that high-density housing causes less environmental impacts is based on the concepts of “geographic footprint” and “carbon footprint.” For example, if your housing is smaller and more compact in a city, and you drive less to get to work and home, your geographic and carbon footprints appear to be smaller.

However, what the geographic- and carbon-footprint theories fail to address is the actual total environmental footprint of each person as well as all the environmental footprint of new growth and development. In the last decade, a new model has emerged to address these shortcomings, called “Ecological Footprint.” It includes not just the geographic footprint of housing and the carbon footprint of driving, but also includes all of the total ecological and environmental impacts caused by each person as well as by whole towns, cities, states and even countries.

An international organization — the “Global Footprint Network” — describes the “ecological footprint” as “the only metric that compares the resource demand of individuals, governments, and businesses against Earth’s capacity for biological regeneration.”

Your ecological footprint includes not just the components of your geographic footprint like your housing choice and the carbon impacts of your driving, but also includes the roads your drive on, the malls you shop at, the pipelines that bring natural gas to your house, etc. In addition, your carbon footprint is expanded to include all of the carbon emissions you cause to be emitted wherever on the planet that carbon is emitted.

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Your ecological footprint includes all of the environmental impacts and greenhouse gases you cause through your traveling and consumer choices — plane trips to Europe; electronic devices in your home that were shipped from China; granite countertops in your kitchen shipped from Brazil, and the wood/steel/concrete/glass logged/forged/mined to create your dense urban housing unit. Further, your ecological footprint includes the industrial activity that keeps your life functioning, such as electric utilities, automobile manufacturing facilities, and fossil fuel industries.

Your eating habits are a central feature of your ecological footprint including the cropland and grazing land producing your meat and vegetables, the fishing grounds providing your seafood, as well as the shipping services that bring all that food to your homes and restaurants.

A recent international scientific study in the journal Nature Food indicates that cropland, to feed humans, has an enormously growing ecological footprint. Using satellite imagery, scientists studied and reported that the amount of cropland on the planet increased by 9% from 2003 to 2019 and now consumes 1 million square kilometers of the Earth’s surface.

Importantly, your ecological footprint can be very large despite what might appear to be a small geographic footprint. A person can live in a densely packed condominium in Boulder or Denver, but have consumption and travel habits that are dramatically more ecologically impactful than a suburban commuter in that same city.

In fact, what matters more is not the size of your house or the car that you drive, but your overall wealth and consumption habits. A 2017 study in the journal Environment and Behavior found that “wealth” is the biggest factor determining the amount of damage caused to the environment by people because wealthier people are much larger consumers than poorer people. Another study, in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, stated that consumerism plays a huge role in climate change as household consumption contributes to “more than 60% of global GHG emissions and between 50% and 80% of total land, material, and water use.”

Colorado is luring and adding young, urban, more highly paid tech workers at a continual pace, exactly the type of people who tend to live in condos, eat in nicer restaurants, head to the mountains on weekends, and travel abroad on vacation.

Let’s face it: You could pack every Coloradan into a condo stacked on top of each other — stack them all the way to the moon — but the dramatic environmental impact of all of those people would grow larger and more destructive every year. Until Colorado makes the decision to stop growing, dense housing will not save Colorado’s environment.

Gary Wockner, Ph.D., is an environmental activist and a consultant to scientific, political and environmental organizations in Colorado. Contact: GaryWockner.com

Gary Wockner, PhD, is an environmental activist and a consultant to scientific, political and environmental organizations in Colorado. Contact: GaryWockner.com