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Land Use Development Must Address Global Warming and Public Infrastructure Costs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Bourey
August 22, 2021

Public administration professionals must recognize that the future development of our urban areas will play a major role in the battle against global warming. While the expertise of land use planning professionals needs to be recognized and respected, city and county managers must actively engage in the development of our urban areas. The land use patterns and densities of the future development of our cities will either assist in addressing global warming or contribute to making the problem much worse. By increasing the mixture of land uses and increasing residential densities beyond typical single family lot development, we can dramatically reduce the production of greenhouse gases. In addition to ameliorating negative environmental consequences, an increase in density and mixing of land uses will significantly reduce the cost of providing public infrastructure. Furthermore, a greater density and integration of land uses would not represent a compromise of the single family lot development, sometimes envisioned as part of the American dream, but rather would enrich the lives of city residents.

Adie Tomer, Joseph W. Kane, Jenny Schuetz and Caroline George, the authors of a May 12, 2021 article titled, We Can’t Beat the Climate Crisis Without Rethinking Land Use, argue that the problems with global warming cannot be addressed without changing the way that the urban areas of this country have grown. Past development patterns have resulted in the United States having an amount of automobile travel per capita greatly exceeding any other nation. The amount of energy used to run our buildings is also much more than any other country.

When one examines the large numbers of people moving to cities, it is evident that a change in the way we are developing can make a big difference in the amount of energy we consume. The International Organization for Migration estimated in a 2015 report, Urbanization and the Mass Movement of People to Cities, by Bret Boyd, that around 3 million people are moving to cities in the world every week. This same report cites a Yale study which showed that urban land will encompass approximately 10% of the surface of the earth by 2030. Reducing this footprint can make a major difference in the release of greenhouse gases.

The key to reducing greenhouse gases in cities is to reduce the number and length of automobile trips. A January, 2018 publication in The Guardian titled, Vehicles are Now America’s Biggest CO2 Source but EPA is Tearing Up the Regulations, reported that transportation had overtaken power generation as the largest producer of greenhouse gases. Increasing transit usage and reducing the distance between residences, jobs, shopping and entertainment is vital to containing automobile emissions.

In addition, a 2005 study by the Halifax Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia, Canada, titled, Healthy Growth for HRM; Settlement Pattern and Form with Service Cost Analysis, found that the cost of providing public infrastructure to residential development decreased as the residential density increased. Interestingly enough, the rate of increase of the cost of the infrastructure started to level off at about 36 persons per acre, which, given the people per home in Halifax, results in about 16.5 dwellings per acre. This study looked at cost-for-city services; roads, transit, water, wastewater, solid waste, parks and recreation, libraries, police and fire.  

The Federal Transit Administration released a June 2014 publication to guide development to promote transit. The report, titled Planning for Transit-Supportive Development: A Practitioner’s Guide, Section 5: Local Planning and Transit-Supportive Development, by Dr. Colette Santasieri, states that 17.4 dwellings per acre is a minimum to be supported by transit.

In a chapter of a soon to be published book entitled, Advice for Local Government Leaders on Their Journey to Make a Difference, I argue that for the purposes of minimizing the production of greenhouse gases and reducing infrastructure costs, as well as providing a high quality living environment, a minimum residential land use density of approximately 16 homes per acre is close to ideal. In providing for quality environment at this density, developments should have the following characteristics:

  • Connection to the ground.
  • Ready availability and nearby open space.
  • A measure of privacy.
  • Access to transportation work, school, shopping and entertainment trips.
  • Proximity to other families with children.
  • Home ownership.

This type of development can provide an excellent environment to meet not only the needs of families but also other household units. It also is a configuration and density that can be effectively served by transit and reduce the need for automobile trips. Furthermore, by mixing commercial uses and other employment opportunities, it can reduce the use of cars for long trips to work as well as shopping. If most of the new development in our urban and suburban areas is at this density or higher, and has a significant increase in the mix of land uses, not only will greenhouse gases be dramatically lower than with the present patterns but we will also slash the cost of providing infrastructure to serve our communities.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the book, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager.

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