Atlantic Cities: “New Research Finds Urban Form Plays Little Role in Sustainability”

New research published in the Journal of the American Planning Association and featured today on Atlantic Cities suggests that an excessive focus on urban density may be a mistake. Some excerpts:

“To our surprise, if you compare the compact form versus the current trend, the difference in reduced transport by automobile is very minor. And if you allow the city to expand, the increase in the use of the car is only marginal,” says Marcial Echenique, a professor at the University of Cambridge Department of Architecture and one of the authors of the report. “If you make the city more compact, it doesn’t mean that people will abandon their car. Only 5 percent of people abandon the use of the car. Ninety-five percent carries on using the car, which means there are more cars on the same streets, therefore there is much more congestion and therefore there is much more pollution and no great increase in the reduction of energy…

“We are not very convinced of the idea that compacting cities will make very much difference in terms of environmental quality. But it will have severe consequences in terms of economics and social issues,” Echenique says.

Of particular concern for these researchers is that restricting development to only high-density, urban locations could greatly increase the cost of land and housing, causing both the cost of living and the cost of doing businesses to skyrocket. Echenique worries this will cause cities to become less competitive over the long term.

In terms of reducing the environmental impacts of human development and lifestyle, Echenique says his numbers indicate that we might be better off focusing our effort on improving technology and energy efficiency. He says we’ll have a much better chance of reducing the negative impacts of modern living by focusing on automobile technology and reduced energy usage in buildings. He and his team are currently working on research on the effectiveness of focusing on the technology side. Results are expected to publish later this year.

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See also:

Video: Zoning Revisions Committee Discusses Densifying Infill Areas (12/18/10)
The committee discussed several ideas that appealed to NSNA, such as liberalizing the regulations on home occupations. However, other ideas gave us concern:

  • Not all mixed-uses may be benign for residential neighborhoods. For example, a noisy bar.
  • Some members of the ZRC may not appreciate how much people value their cars, especially in our cold climate. Having no car isolates you from friends, jobs, activities, civic participation, and (reasonably-priced) shopping. Transporting small children without a car is particularly difficult.
  • Most of the dense neighborhoods in the Urban Residential C districts were built before cars became popular. Today‚Äôs zoning that restricts development there may be the main thing preventing serious parking and traffic problems.
  • The solution to many of the problems created by gas-powered cars may come in the form of smaller cars, electric cars, etc., rather than the elimination of cars.

Energy Intensity Less in Single-Family Homes Than High-Rises (12/13/07)