Combating Climate Change by Tackling Sprawl

Sprawl There’s a lot of talk here on Jetson Green about the (adverse) impact that architecture and materials choice can have on the environment.  So it’s nice to know that housing can actually be an essential factor in combating climate change according to a new study from Smart Growth America.

While attending the recent EcoCity World Summit in San Francisco, I heard panelist Reid Ewing, research professor at the National Center for Smart Growth, discuss urban development and its (negative and positive) effect on climate change.  The study, published by the Urban Land Institute, documents how key changes in land development patterns could help reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. 

The numbers speak for themselves.

First the bad …

  • Transportation accounts for a full third of CO2 emissions in the United States;
  • Since 1980, the number of miles Americans drive has grown three times faster than population and twice as fast as vehicle registrations;
  • Sprawling development is expected to cause a 48 percent increase in the total miles driven between 2005 and 2030;
  • Even with most stringent fuel-efficiency proposals being considered, vehicle emissions would be 34% above 1990 levels by 2030 due to sprawl.

Now the good news …

  • Two-thirds of development expected to be on the ground in 2050 is not yet built;
  • Shifting 60 percent of new growth to compact patterns would save 79 million tons of CO2 annually by 2030 or the equivalent of increasing vehicle fuel efficiency standards by 28% (to 32 mpg).

The Smart Growth America coalition coordinated the review of dozens of studies published by the Urban Land Institute.  The review found that compact development reduces driving 20 to 40 percent. The results of the comprehensive work are published in a book available for purchase from ULI, with the opening chapter free to download.  Both purchase and download are available here

When it comes to tackling climate change, the old real estate adage still rings true: location, location, location.

P.S. For an interesting 321-photo slideshow of Phoenix, AZ sprawl, click here.

P.S.S. [ed. note] – read more at Top 10 Problems with Sprawl.

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  • Preston

    @Jeff – that link to the 321 sprawl photo set in Phoenix is just icing on the cake for a great article. :)

  • Kelvin Findlay

    I like the idea of urbanizing our future developments, but I have two main questions/concerns:
    1. This all seems like a lot of talk right now. The only thing I’ve seen done is a general emphasis by some architects to do urban infill projects, and a few small walkable communities here and there. Who is coming up with the plans to make this work?
    2. I come from a small community where we value our privacy and space. How is this plan actually marketable? I know a lot of people are fine with lving close quarters, but even urban dwellers aren’t ready to start walking everywhere. What research has been done to illustrate the demand for walkable communities spoken of?
    Again, I think we need to make this a better earth and reduce our emissions and dependcy on gasoline/deisel. It just seems like electric and air cars have a better prospect of solving the problem before new urbanism unless someone shows us a good plan that’s not only right in principle, but marketable as well.

  • Jeff

    You raise valid points Kelvin. I think we need a variety of tools to combat climate change including better transportation modes and less dependency on the gasoline engine.

    Regarding projects, check out Sonoma Mountain Village in California.

    There was also a recent article in the Washington Post about it. Read it here:

    Thanks for the perspective.

  • Escrowe

    Basic lessons that can be learned from playing SimCity: Place Residential and Commercial Development in close proximity, with Commercial zones between Residential and Industrial zones. Place toll facilities liberally. Focus on mass transit links between Residential and Industrial zones, with commuter shuttles and carpool incentives to facillitate multi-modal paradigms. Tax the Hell out of Dirty Industries, subsidize Clean Industries. Allow Clean Industrial Development shoulder to shoulder with Residential Development. Promote Public and Private Education at every turn.

    The results? Pollution down, car traffic down, bus and train use up, more pedestrian traffic, per-capita income up, crime down…

    Don’t make it too easy for you population to be under-educated, poor, and frankly lazy. Actual human effort is the foundation of economic wealth.

  • Paul Donahue

    Good article!

    The role of urban dssign in combatting GHG emissions, especially in the US, cannot be over emphaiszed, and I know this from personal experience.

    When I moved from a life in sprawling Fairfax County, Virginia and Lexington, Kentucky, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my annual auto usage declined 300 percent. This occured even though there were no changes in my car use associated with weekend outdoor activities. Quality of life improved in every way. The urban neighborhood I moved to was even quieter than most suburban areas – the loudest noise being children playing and neighbors conversing from their front stoops.

    By the way, when did it become called “urban sprawl”. Isn’t the correct phrase “suburban sprawl”?

    And, if I may address Preston’s comment:

    The demand for walkable and public transit-friendly neighborhoods is clearly shown by the very high real estate prices (even post-bubble) in redeveloping urban neighborhoods and the older, denser, closer in suburbs. And yes, it is easy to live in a traditional urban neighborhood without a car – enjoyable even. The dis-utility of the car becomes very apparent wen one moves to such “old fashoned” neighborhoods. Better to rent or use the “flex-car” system in the infrequent cases of needing a car. Otherwise, the bus, trolley, or subway work fine.

  • Mel

    Generally speaking a good article. The key point being that “shifting 60 percent of new growth to compact patterns would save 79 million tons of CO2 annually.” Phoenix is a great place to start.

    Unfortunately, with that said, I think that some of your photos have mis-characterized certain developments as sprawl when their densities are much higher than what you might typically find in Phoenix. In particular, photos 3-13 (The Gardens in Gilbert, Arizona) are of a small (110 acre) walkable community with average densities of 8 units per acre and some densities as high as 12 DUA. The developer of that community, Classic Communities (a subsidiary of Trend Homes), has a number of other communities throughout the valley that are density oriented. Some of their community densities are as high as 20 DUA. If you are in favor of higher densities, then these kinds of developers shouldn’t be lumped in with the rest of the sprawl.

    As a general rule you should be aware that many developers are in favor of density, but face stiff opposition from local governments and NIMBY residents. In any case, if you want to raise densities in Phoenix (or anywhere else for that matter), a few points of attack at your favorite municipality should be as follows:

    1. Approving narrower streets while still allowing public utilities.

    2. Allowing increased depths on retention basins.

    3. Allowing increased building heights.

    4. Allowing reduced maneuverability requirements for trash and fire equipment (see the study from Longmont, Colorado on the improved safety of reduced street sections with little impact to emergency response times).

    5. Allowing reduced front setbacks for architecturally elevated living areas.

    6. Reducing the costs of unnecessary regulation so that density remains affordable.

  • Jeff Stephens

    For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, this topic will be discussed at a June 12th meeting of the Urban Land Institute. Registration includes a free copy of the Growing Cooler study.

    More details available here:

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