BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
October 20, 2023
Gov. Gavin Newsom is a big advocate of science, the concept, not the magazine. He’s often said science was behind his many controversial moves to counter COVID-19 and he’s using science in the state’s effort to mitigate future wildfires, for just two examples.
But when confronted with the strong possibility that science might argue against his years-long push for more housing density, signing bill after bill to further that cause over the last five years, he ignored scientific findings.
As far back as 2019, fully four years ago, Newsom was presented evidence from Science (the peer-reviewed magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of, yes, Science) that the denser housing becomes, the greater the frequency of strokes among residents of that housing.
Ironically, one argument presented by Newsom and San Francisco’s Democratic state Sen. Scott Wiener, chief legislative backer of the big push for ever-denser housing, was that it would lead to a healthier California.
Said Wiener back then, via an email, “Housing density…facilitates active transportation, such as walking and biking. People are much healthier when they regularly walk, as opposed to having a sedentary lifestyle and spending hours every day in a car.”
Those comments came after publication in Science of a study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, which found that “higher residential-surrounding greenspace is related with fewer and less severe strokes. Living in high noise areas…can lead to more severe strokes.”
Newsom was furnished this study in 2019 and failed to comment on it then, or since then.
Meanwhile, bills he’s signed have led to a high-rise housing construction boom and more noise in many parts of California. He and his supporters in the Legislature each year since 2018 passed new laws making building permits for dense housing easier and easier to get. Easiest of all are the “builders’ remedy” structures going up in cities from Santa Monica to San Jose, where housing plans weren’t approved by state authorities prior to arbitrary deadlines.
One consequence has been overbuilding, as evidenced by high vacancy rates in new buildings and ubiquitous signage advertising this fact. Some new buildings sport rooftop gardens, parks and playgrounds. But not most.
There is no proven cause-and-effect link, but the number of strokes in California has risen steadily since the building boom began in late 2018, a period in which the state’s population has dropped yearly.
Here’s the latest tally from the National Center for Health Statistics: In 2018, 16,457 Californians suffered strokes. A year later, there were 16,851. In 2020, there were 17,916 and by 2021, the last year for which numbers are available, the figure had jumped to 18,304. That’s an 11.2 percent increase in strokes during a time when population dropped and new dense housing construction expanded vastly.
There are no statistics available on whether these strokes were more severe as the years progressed. This also may involve mere correlation, not causality. But the fact is that denser housing here has coincided with more strokes.
So the figures suggest Wiener may have been wrong about dense living being healthier than life surrounded by green space. So much for his years-long effort to decimate or eliminate single-family housing in this state, which was largely built on the concept of urban sprawl.
And yet, the authors of the Barcelona study insist they have nothing against high-rise living. Payam Dadvand MD, co-author of the stroke study, said that “Denser cities have both pros and cons. It very much depends on how they are designed and planned.”
But nothing in any of the new state laws requires new parks or other green space around new high-rises. Not even a parking space for each unit. So greenery is rare on or near the new California buildings, despite Wiener saying “Urban density should include significant green space and noise abatement.”
The bottom line: Newsom used science when it promoted his anti-Covid tactics. But he’s ignored science so far as it appears to conflict with his housing policies.