Rosenbloom Urges Local Governments to Use Law to Make Positive Change
Many attorneys are motivated people who enter the legal profession to “make a difference.” Albany Law School Professor Jonathan Rosenbloom is especially ambitious: He wants to save the world.
Rosenbloom views local law and policy as tools to deal with climate change, biodiversity, community health, energy conservation, racial justice, food supply, and myriad sustainability issues—one town at a time. In a recent article in the Journal of Comparative Urban Law and Policy (Saving the World Through Zoning: The Sustainable Development Code, Regeneration, and Beyond) Rosenbloom and attorney/planner Christopher J. Duerksen of Clarion Associates push local governments to use their inherent, strong powers to regulate development and the use of land to cut through state red tape and sidestep the shifting and stagnant Washington political landscape.
“When it comes to the environment and social justice issues, Congress has not taken any meaningful action in decades,” Rosenbloom said, adding that the Supreme Court also sidelined the Environ- mental Protection Agency with its 2022 decision limiting the agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions (see West Virginia v. EPA, 597 U.S. 2857). But even as SCOTUS and Congress are step- ping back, the 39,000 local governments in the U.S. can step forward and, in many ways, control their own destinies, he said.
“Local governments have traditionally used their legal authority to simply manage or encourage economic growth,” Rosenbloom said. “Today, we are rethinking development to proactively regenerate lost ecosystems, require net positive and carbon negative buildings, and encourage positive environmental impacts that increase equity.”
Rosenbloom has a Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design, a juris doctor from New York Law School, and an LL.M from Harvard Law School. He is the founding executive director of the Sustainable Development Code (SDC), an online compendium of best practices for creating environmentally conscious, resilient, and socially equitable communities.
“Almost 10 years ago, I was on a panel discussing the future of zoning with this out-spoken and no-nonsense, hilarious man,” Rosenbloom said, recalling how he met Duerksen. “As it turned out, Chris was one of the most forward-thinking lawyer/ planners in the US when it comes to zoning. He and I hit it off immediately.”
Duerksen was part of an interdisciplinary group that started an early version of the SDC. Today, it analyzes the development process from the beginning to the end to identify areas ripe for environmental and social justice improvements.
In their article, Rosenbloom and Duerksen make a persuasive case that— given the declining state of the climate, biodiversity, and ecosystems, local governments—cannot idly sit by and wait for the federal government to act.
“An increasing number of local governments are adopting ambitious sustainable development codes that hold great promise to not only protect the environment and society but to encourage and facilitate regeneration of the environment and ad- dress past social inequities and injustices,” Rosenbloom and Duerksen wrote.
“For decades, poor and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) com-
munities have been discriminated against and experienced disproportionate adverse impacts when it comes to development,” Rosenbloom and Duerksen wrote. “[L]ocal governments can integrate environ- mental justice into the decision-making process by establishing criteria in which the building is not viewed in isolation, but rather a part of a subsystem within a larger social-ecological system.”
In an interview, Rosenbloom said the article and the SDC are designed to pro- vide local governments and neighborhood groups with the instruments they need to improve their communities and, where necessary, circumvent federal or state morass.
“I find it difficult, if not sad, to imagine what the United States will look like when my children are my age,” Rosenbloom said. “A few more decades of development under current codes will be nothing short of disastrous.”
Rosenbloom, who focused his architecture education with an eye toward socially oriented projects, designed a battered women’s shelter, a community housing project, and for his thesis proposed an artificial wetlands treatment facility.
“With much of my work, I’m trying to fill gaps between theory and implementation at the local level to accelerate a healthier planet for all species and future generations,” he said. “Lofty, no doubt. But I’m lucky to have a passion and the luxury to pursue it.”