Carbon Zoning: How to turn record demand for urban real estate into a meaningful partnership between the government and private sector.

In cities across North America, demand for prime urban real estate has never been greater. From Boston to Brooklyn to the Bay Area, new developments are popping up in every spare crevasse of the urban fabric. They charge astronomical rents, and still have no problem filling their floors. The reversal of the exodus to suburbia that characterized the 20th century is driving unprecedented sums of money back into cities. As mayors and urban planners look to capitalize on this insatiable demand, they must remember climate change. As unlikely a connection as it seems, the increased demand for urban real estate is a prime opportunity to make strides toward more sustainable cities and a cleaner planet. The impactful climate action we need must, as we know, come from a meaningful partnership between the government and the private sector. As made clear by the landmark climate deal at the COP21 in Paris, which was ratified by over 190 countries, there exists a strong global initiative by governments to act on climate change. Because these two forces- heightened demand for urban real estate and nearly ubiquitous political support for climate action- a new opportunity for a meaningful public-private partnership has emerged. The government wants to incubate sustainable development, and controls highly valuable real estate. The private sector craves the opportunity to build on the land, and has the ability to build a more sustainable urban environment that will slow climate change.

Therefore, the government should enact new, targeted zoning measures on city districts, which will allow developers to build on in-demand land only if they adhere to strengthened regulations that require them to build sustainably. Such requirements could take a form similar to the existing LEED building standards. For example, a highly-demanded area will be required to hold to the most scrupulous restrictions on water use, energy-efficiency, and emissions (such as LEED Platinum certification). An area with lower demand will be held to something along the lines of a LEED Silver certification. All private developments will be affected, ensuring that entire neighborhoods are built in a way that ensures sustainability and a more liveable urban environment. No “carbon zoning” will include the reduction of sustainable building requirements, unless excessive regulation is preventing the investment needed to upgrade or replace existing harmful buildings.

Because of the high demand and lucrative potential that exists currently for areas that would be heavily regulated, developers will not be dissuaded from making an investment. Also, developers will not shy away from lower-demand areas that would seem a poor investment to potential developers if they were regulated at the same level as high-demand areas.

There is no one-size fits all building code requirement that will work successfully in cities. If a broad city-wide approach is taken, it will either fail to take proper advantage of high-demand areas or squelch potential development in lower-demand areas. Using Boston (which is experiencing a building boom unseen in its history), here is what a specialized “Carbon Zoning” system could look like: The most in-demand neighborhoods for development in Boston include the Seaport, Back Bay, and the South End, which would properly zoned for high demand. Areas such as Dorchester, South Boston, and Roxbury, which would struggle to find developers to meet chronic housing shortages if intense environmental building regulations were put in place, would be subject to less intense requirements. Despite newer and stricter requirements, developers will still flock to a carbon-zoned Seaport with no slowing in sight, because so much demand exists. As many new developments in high-demand areas which attained impressive eco-certification and still pulled in lucrative profits show, there is no reason to believe that such regulations will stifle development. Such policies will instead serve to expedite and widen the reach of the transition to sustainable urban development. With record high real estate prices and the unbelievable pace of new development in cities across America and the world, there is no better time for the government to make demand work for the planet and foster a clean and sustainable urban environment. Beyond the benefits of cleaner air and water, “carbon zoning” will lay the groundwork for the public-private cooperation needed to fight the great challenge of the generation to come.