Sustainable Development Means Acceptance of High Density Urban Planning


Sprawl is not good, but neither is density, say people who don’t want either. But you can’t have it both ways.

“These are tough choices, but the only antidote for sprawl is more density,” said Bill Hudnut, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Professional Studies in Real Estate program. “Urban planners must aim to develop land more compactly – including more walkable and bike-and-transit-friendly cities and neighborhoods – to create sustainable living environments for the future.”

An Urban Land Institute report agrees, estimating that more compact urban development strategies would help reduce vehicle miles traveled by 12-to-17 percent by 2050. As a result, carbon dioxide emissions would fall 7-to-10 percent.

Local studies have found similar results. A King County, Washington, study found that areas with low land use mix generate 14 percent more carbon dioxide per person than do areas with high land use mix.

“The relationships found between urban sprawl and the quality of life outcomes show that traffic and transportation-related problems appear to increase in more sprawling areas,” according to sprawl research cited by the Urban Land Institute. “Even when controlling for income, household size and other variables, people drive more, have to own more cars, breathe more polluted air, face greater risk of traffic fatalities and walk and use transit less in places with more sprawling development patterns.”

Vehicle technologies and cleaner fuel innovations have been helpful, but only go so far in the effort to improve air quality. “Smarter urban planning must also do its part,” Hudnut said.

Redefining Dense Development’s Virtues

Dense development doesn’t necessarily have to be bad development, according to the Urban Land Institute, which calls for the use of “compact development” strategies by urban planners.

The Need for Regional Cooperation

Higher densities can address a number of sustainable development issues, “but only if this new development embodies a green design policy that provides transit-friendly and automobile-free lifestyle options,” agrees Edward H. Ziegler, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Such planning and interconnectedness, Ziegler said, will require “megapolitan” cooperation and teamwork among counties, cities and suburbs.

“Citizens must also play a role by accepting the realities of compact densities,” Hudnut said. “Even if it means density in our own back yards.”


1 Urban Land Institute. (2007). Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. Available: Last accessed Sept. 21, 2012.

2 Miller, J. S., P.E. (2011). Estimating greenhouse gas reductions as a result of state land use initiatives. Institute of Transportation Engineers .ITE Journal, 81(12), 34-38. Retrieved from

3 Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. (20120). Region Forward: A Comprehensive Guide for Regional Planning. Available: Last accessed Sept. 21, 2012.

4 Ziegler, E.H. (2009). The case for megapolitan growth management in the twenty-first century: Regional urban planning and sustainable development in the USA. International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 1 .2, 105-129.

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