compact development: overview » introduction » compact development and other outcomes

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Energy efficiency and compact development

A 2011 study provides evidence that compact, location-efficient residential development is more energy efficient than conventional residential development at the household and neighborhood levels. The report, Location Efficiency and Housing Type: Boiling it Down to BTUs, indicates that housing type and location are significant determinants of household energy consumption. [1] Using data from the Residential Energy Consumption Survey, the authors determine that the average multifamily unit uses half the energy of an average detached single family home. This difference is due primarily to the energy used to heat and cool the space. Smaller units in multifamily buildings or townhomes that share walls require less energy to heat and cool the space, consuming less energy than single-family detached homes.

The report further quantifies how compact development can reduce the

photo courtesy of Jonathan Rose Companies LLC
number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), defined as the number of miles that families need to travel each day, and associated greenhouse gas emissions. Using 2009 National Housing Transportation Survey data, the study finds that households located in high density areas (5,000 – 9,999 households per square mile) produce about half the emissions of households in very low density areas (0 – 50 households per square mile). Households located near transit lines produce about one-fourth the emissions of households with less access to transit. [2]

Click here to view a recording of a webinar that provides further details on findings in the report. (Note: Due to the large file size, the recording may take several minutes to load.)

Several other studies support these findings. A review of existing research on the relationship between land use patterns and VMT in the Urban Land Institute’s report Growing Cooler finds evidence that compact development can reduce the need to drive between 20 and 40 percent. [3] At the regional level, a study of residential density in the Puget Sound region finds that when density approaches 20 dwelling units per acre, vehicle trips decline and pedestrian and transit trips increase. [4] Likewise, a study of travel, energy and greenhouse gases in the 9- county San Francisco Bay Area finds that VMT and associated emissions per household are substantially lower in dense urban counties like San Francisco than more rural and suburban counties in the region. [5]

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Compact development and disaster resistance

Lower density development can extend the reach of the flood plain—land adjacent to a waterway that is prone to flooding—by replacing open space, and its naturally absorbent land, with extended road networks, buildings and other impervious surfaces. Zoning codes and other regulations that promote compact development can reduce the size of the floodplain by channeling development into a smaller area and limiting the growth of non-porous surfaces, thereby reducing the risk of flood damage to nearby homes. These regulations can also be designed to prevent residential development in vulnerable areas. For example, in Vermont, overlay zones are commonly used to establish development standards for flood hazard zones, regulating the site and buildings accordingly. [6]
Credit Todd Bush Photography, Courtesy of Northwestern Housing Enterprises

An important aspect of sound land use planning and zoning is to understand the true risk of flooding within flood plains and how that risk is affected by increased development over time. People often misconceive the chance of flooding in a 100-year floodplain, which is the standard measure used to gauge flood risk in a community. In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (which includes the city of Charlotte), planners conducted an analysis to determine development patterns under maximum build-out as allowed by current land use and zoning regulations, and analyzed how this potential development would affect current floodplain designations. Comparing the potential flood damages that would likely occur under the maximum build-out scenario with both the current (2000) floodplain areas and the newly projected floodplain, the county discovered there would be an estimated $333 million in additional damages under maximum build out. In response to these findings, the county revised its zoning code and land use regulations based on the projected change in the floodplain. A new minimum base flood elevation for future development (one foot above the level to which flood waters are expected to rise) and set of stream setback requirements limits development to areas outside of the floodplain and protects against losses from future flooding.

Learn more about community regulations and planning strategies to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters.

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Linking compact development to other key outcomes
Housing type and location contribute to lower levels of energy consumption in compact development, compared with conventional residential development. Compact development may also be more resilient following natural disasters.

Other pages in this section:

Strategies for achieving compact development
An array of local land use tools are available to make higher-density, mixed-use development possible in communities of all sizes.

[1] Location Efficiency and Housing Type : Boiling it Down to BTUs. [PDF] 2011. Daniel Hernandez, Matthew Lister, and Celine Suarez. New York, NY: Jonathan Rose Companies, Prepared for the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection.
[2] Location Efficiency and Housing Type : Boiling it Down to BTUs
[3] Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. [PDF] 2007. Reid Ewing, Keith Bartholomew, Steve Winkelman, Jerry Walters and Don Chen. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute.
[4] Energy and Smart Growth: It's About How and Where We Build. [PDF] 2004. Translation Paper. Coral Gables, FL: The Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities.
[5] Bay Area Burden. [PDF] 2009. The Center for Housing Policy. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute.
[6] Overlay Districts- Community Planning Toolbox [Webpage] Vermont Natural Resources Council.