THE BLOG

Smart Growth Helps Combat Climate Change

03/04/2014 06:43 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2014

We are past the point of arguing about the science of climate change. Study after study, expert after expert, has confirmed that it is real. We are also past the point of denying the effects of climate change. Droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, the polar vortex, and record highs and lows, make it clear that the damage of climate change is real.

Those are the debates of the past. What we now need to focus on, and quickly, are solutions. We can't control the weather, but we can control the actions we take from this point forward to utilize the tools we have to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

One opportunity that should be seized upon is the implementation of smart growth principles throughout our communities. Not only do these principles foster economic vitality, respect the environment, and improve quality of life, they also inherently help lower carbon emissions.

My home district of Sacramento, California is in the middle of a development renaissance. In a familiar scene across the country, the past few decades saw the movement of residents and businesses away from our core city and into the sprawling suburbs. However, the farther and farther apart communities become, the more driving is a necessity, and the more carbon emissions we produce.

Now, policy makers in the Sacramento region, from the local level up to the federal level, are making a conscious decision to focus on infill development and policies that will lessen Sacramento's carbon footprint. Townhouses, high rise apartments and dense neighborhoods are popping up in what used to be industrial areas on the edge our downtown. Even in suburban areas, denser housing is being built near light rail stations.

But we aren't just looking to put in businesses, housing, a new arena, museums and restaurants without considering how people will get around. Sustainable development cannot occur without also examining the infrastructure needed to efficiently move people without cars. One key piece to the smart growth puzzle, and a proven solution to lowering carbon emissions, is ensuring a wide range of dependable and feasible public transportation options, so people can easily move around.

In Sacramento, we currently have intercity railroad lines and light rail options for commuters, but we are also working on radically expanding our public transportation options to better connect our region and lower our carbon emissions. Sufficient investments are also being made to rehabilitate our historic train station, to expand our light rail lines, and to one day have streetcars once again connecting our neighborhoods.

This is a model that has worked in other medium sized American cities. By focusing on revitalizing our core areas, we can cut back on the amount of car trips and mitigate our carbon emissions, lessening the impacts of climate change. When it comes to development, bigger isn't always better, but being smarter about using what we already have can provide exponential payoffs.

Another tool available to communities to help them mitigate the impacts of climate change is the adoption of complete streets policies. Whether a city has a population of 500 or 5 million, pedestrians and cyclists share the road with cars and busses, and need their own dedicated space to be able to safely move around. Complete streets, a policy that I am championing and that has bipartisan support in Congress, is a common-sense approach whereby streets are developed with all these users in mind, regardless of their age, mobility, or mode of transportation.

When given an option to walk or bike in a safe and secure manner, people will take advantage of it. And when people choose these options and get out of their cars, the climate benefits are immense.

There are a number of steps we need to take immediately to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change, including increasing our energy efficiency and implementing a cap and trade program. But smart growth policies such as infill development, increasing public transportation options and creating streets that work for all users, are also common sense solutions that can be replicated across the country and have a tangible impact on carbon emissions.

It is time for Congress to take cues from our cities that are already advancing innovative approaches to development and to become a key partner. It is the responsibility of us in Congress to promote policies that encourage cooperation between public groups, private enterprise, and nonprofits, to foster the innovation and efficiency necessary to factor the impacts of climate change into development and to ensure a high quality of life for all Americans.

After all, the debate is over. Climate change is here and it is impacting every corner of our country. Now we must focus on solutions, and we must do so quickly.

This post is part of a series from the Safe Climate Caucus. The Caucus is comprised of 38 members of the House of Representatives who have committed to ending the conspiracy of silence in Congress about the dangers of climate change. For more information, visit the Safe Climate Caucus website and like the Safe Climate Caucus on Facebook.