Infill development offers many advantages for people: more housing, jobs and retail options closer to transit, so people don’t have to drive long distances; affordable rents and home prices as more housing is built to match demand; and climate and air quality benefits as less driving and paved open space means less pollution.
But Hurricane Harvey and the destruction in Houston is now crystallizing another critical benefit of infill: resilience in the face of extreme weather events. As observers have noted, the devastating floods were exacerbated by land use policies that prioritized sprawl over flood control and “green infrastructure” that could have soaked up excess rainwater. More infill development would have saved this open space and avoided building homes that are now essentially destroyed and unlikely to be rebuilt.
Unfortunately, infill development is too often stymied by political barriers — not economic or environmental ones. As Paul Krugman described in an op-ed over the weekend:
In practice, however, policy all too often ends up being captured by interest groups. In sprawling cities, real-estate developers exert outsized influence, and the more these cities sprawl, the more powerful the developers get. In NIMBY cities, soaring prices make affluent homeowners even less willing to let newcomers in.
Krugman compared Houston to San Francisco as two sides of these extremes. Both cities will need infill as a climate resilience strategy: Houston for the flooding we just saw, and San Francisco in the face of sea level rise and more severe droughts (residents in infill developments use less water per capita), among other looming environmental challenges.
So perhaps one bright spot from this tragedy is that infill advocates can now point to Houston as a clear symbol of why infill is also an important adaptation strategy in a world with a rapidly changing climate.