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Why Density is Green, Closed-Loop Cities
Alex Steffen, 15 May 06

bedzedhmpg_lrg_image.jpg CSM writer Patrick Chisholm lays out the basics of the argument that compact cities are green cities, in clear, precise terms:

A few years ago the extremist group the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for a $50 million arson that destroyed a five-story apartment building under construction in San Diego. If the group was trying to make a statement about helping the environment, it was a dumb move. High-rise residential buildings enable hundreds of people to live on only a couple of acres of land. That frees up lots of extra space for animals, forests, and other natural habitat.
Hundreds of people living in single-family homes, by contrast, require dozens of acres of land. Apart from squirrels and birds and the like, the natural habitat of animals is destroyed or disrupted. ...
The United States is expected to expand by about 100 million people over the next 40 years. It potentially means consuming millions of acres of additional open space in order to accommodate them all. But that could be remedied if we build up, rather than out.

Meanwhile, the Cascadia Region Green Building Council is sponsoring a terrific design competition, Closing the Loop:

Current design, construction and manufacturing processes are based on a linear system, from production, to use, to waste; we build disposable buildings and products. We pump energy in, CO2 out. We pipe water in, sewage out. Construction consumes 40% of materials produced, and accounts for 40% of our waste stream. Of materials used to create products, 6% ends up as the product itself, and 94% ends up as waste material and 80% of all products produced end up in a landfill within 6 weeks. Additionally, the majority of environmental impacts are locked into design before the pencil touches the paper.... Because a building or community can only be as sustainable as its components, the competition focuses on elements and systems in the built environment.

The criteria for the competition are practically a stroll through the most exciting developments in bright green cities. That's excellent, because mere density alone is not enough -- we need density-plus: density plus livability, say, or in this case, density plus greatly more sustainable systems, systems which include ideas like design for disassembly (or even active disassembly), zero-waste, cradle-to-cradle and closed loop systems, life-cycle thinking, product-service systems, and the whole sustainable design ball of wax.

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Though, that's a bit like the chicken & the egg debate... Yes it frees up space, but when the high rise template bursts in excess, and we get people who don't care much for local food in the first place, then the whole setup starts spiraling out of control. When people start obsessively compulsively living off a foreign land-base, requiring the importation of food & resources, then it allows for population growth to occur much more easily & prominently, in that particular location. More people, taller buildings. Taller buildings, more people. More people, requires more food. More importation of food, more people. More people, taller buildings.

Granted, there isn't quite a direct connection between some of those paralells, but it definitely helps pave the way.

Until questioning modern day society becomes 2nd nature in the dominant culture, we will not pause a beat. I still can't fathom why I can go bike past a McDonalds and STILL see people eating there. What will it take before we finally admit to ourselves that those ways of life are not very sustainable, nor healthy for that matter.

In conclusion, we can all build groovy ecovillages, but if some capitalist finds that they can purchase potatoes at a cheaper price in California than in their current location, and people are stupid enough to actually buy it (en-masse), then we will be stupid enough to fall right back into the same rut that we are in now. Groovy ecovillages are not enough on their own. For this to work, we have to have groovy ecovillages + informed citizens that will not waiver.

Posted by: Francis Scully on 15 May 06

"Granted, there isn't quite a direct connection between some of those paralells"

That's an understatement. I know of no data whatsoever to support a connection between sprawl (which in contemporary North America is the alternative to density) and environmental awareness, local eating, or anything else you're talking about.

But maybe I'm mis-understanding you. What is it you're proposing?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 May 06

Sprawl is caused simply by a lack of homes. Far too many short sighted low growth 0 growth zoning laws and low road building have resulted in society sprawling into the gaps.

Before you can even think about reversing sprawl your gona need the power to put alot more homes where people want to be and then with that many people there bussiness will come. If allowed.

For decades the common person has said they want a cheaper home and developers have wanted to make cheaper homes but zoning doesnt allow any of it. Zero growth policies fight it tooth and nail.

Posted by: wintermane on 16 May 06

woo WorldChanging! Nice one!

Posted by: Ben Wendt on 16 May 06

I think Wintermane makes an important point when he says, "... homes where people want to be and then with that many people there business will come. If allowed."

If people live in high densities in desirable places, demand for housing forces home prices and rents very high - witness San Francisco, Seattle, New York, London, etc. To afford the rent or mortgage, people need decent jobs. To have the decent jobs nearby, businesses need also to afford the rent, and they need to be near where their employees can afford housing, decent schools for their children, and other realities.

Chicken and egg indeed. Overlooking the inevitable linkage of housing and employment, we could witness people in bright green dense apartment blocks heading off on their 50-mile (80-kilometer) commutes each morning - or hopping in an airplane every 2 to 3 weeks to make a living as another member of the Power Point Class.

Live at High Density needs to be coupled to Live Near Your Work. Bright Green cities will have a lot of Bright Green employment paying a wage that covers the rent, and Bright Green schools where you'd be happy sending your child. Meanwhile, living close to your job is a major start.

Posted by: David Foley on 16 May 06

"Construction consumes 40% of materials produced, and accounts for 40% of our waste stream. Of materials used to create products, 6% ends up as the product itself, and 94% ends up as waste material and 80% of all products produced end up in a landfill within 6 weeks"

Correct me if I am wrong, but does this mean that a mere 2% of materials going into making a home(not just construction) are in the final home when contruction is completed.

That is just crazy!

Posted by: Joe on 16 May 06

High density housing does take up less land than low density housing (obviously), but increases the distance that food must travel to reach the residents.

Situation is important:

If this five-storey apartment building is in the middle of an already densely-populated city, then its presence is only making the problem worse. The land would be better used to grow food for local residents.

If it is in the middle of the countryside, then yes, it is better than building a series of single or double storey apartments. The local area probably has a surplus of food, and bringing people to the food actually cuts down the food miles.

Posted by: Chris Anderson on 16 May 06

'Sprawl' has become a way of describing development that we don't like, without much regard to what it actually means. Low density low-impact development is massively possible and may in some scenarios be much greener than high density high rise. It can enable low-tech green solutions (in my world right now low-tech=more future-proof) and compatibility with different kinds of lifestyle that real people (not eco-zealots) crave. I've been recently designing relatively low-density but zero-carbon and water-recycling etc rural communities to see how this could work in pragmatic ways for the UK.

Obviously the US is a different situation in terms of some large-scale sustainability issues (lack of functioning rural train lines, for e.g.) but still I'm sure a lot of things are transferable. And if you read about somewhere like Bangladesh - which is basically all 'sprawl' on one level - and how a dense agricultural economy works in terms of local food, local energy, local jobs etc, there are lots of interesting pointers there if you think laterally.

Could write much more on this! but got to get back to my drawing board and the fields of biomass, allotments and reedbeds I'm drawing around my low-density rural scheme...

Posted by: Hana Loftus on 16 May 06

I don't know that sprawl is at all in the eye of the beholder, actually Hana: it's pretty easily defined as scattered low-density housing with a high proportion of impervious surface and a high degree of auto dependence, which is economically dependent on a nearby central city.

And, just because I like you, I'll double doggy-dare you to come up with a pattern for housing 100 million more Americans in low-density communities that is demonstrably less impactful on local systems and global climate, while offering a way of life that the vast majority will at least accept if not embrace.

I don't think it can be done. Whereas I know that bright green cities can happen because I see them emerging.

Chris: Climate and food. It seems to me that there the assumptions above are that

a) more people will grow a significant percentage of their food if you spread them out over a wide area;
b) more people will eat lower on the food chain, since to have people eating an average American diet and still be growing their own food, you'd have to have nothing but small farms everywhere;
c) people will not want to eat imported foods; and
d) that cutting down on food miles will make a huge impact on the big picture.

But, North Americans (at least) don't spread out to become self-sufficient in food, they spread out to have big lawns. Eating lower on the food chain is just as possible in Manhattan as Missouri (culturall, it may even be easier). People's hunger for kiwi fruit is pretty divorced from land-use patterns. And ultimately, food transportation, while a big deal, is a pretty small slice of the pie:

"According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, food and agricultural products (not including imported or exported foods) are transported 566 billion ton-miles within U.S. borders each year, constituting more than 20% of total U.S. commodity transport" which is a lot, except that commodity transportion is only a subset of total transportation climate impacts, and food is only a part of that.

Much more important are vehicle miles traveled-

As Worldwatch puts it "If governments do not act quickly to discourage the building of cities for cars, the international effort to control global warming will become much more difficult.... Sprawling urban areas are helping to make road transportation the fastest growing source of the carbon emissions warming the earth's atmosphere."

and embedded energy in suburban infrastructure and homes

indeed you can see the maps

Or, as the Greg Nickels puts it, "Reducing urban sprawl is one of the most effective climate protection strategies."

This is doubly true when in comes to the environmental impact of sprawl on watersheds and wildlife...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 16 May 06

The idea that high-rise apartments is ipso facto sustainable overlooks the well-known (to these readers) concept of ecological footprint. The majority of US high-rise residences are either specifically aimed at the luxury market or encourage low-occupancy. The issue of resource use and human population growth doesn't go away by simply putting people in tall buildings. If every person has their own set of appliances--a goal many a capitalist aspire to--the ecological footprint would far exceed the extra 10 acres that was saved from being bulldozed for a single-family residence development. Now if we are talking about different living arrangements (e.g., with one kitchen per floor) or the going back to the days of laundrimats...then the balance between the real and ecological footprints may start to shift.

Posted by: smiles on 16 May 06

There's a big problem with your argument, smiles, which is that you assume the 10 acre lot home in some strange way means that the occupants do not have appliances. In fact, usually suburban and exurban dwellers have all the same stuff *and* much longer infrastructural supply lines, meaning their footprints go way up.

In addition, compact dwellers can share stuff much more easily: you can design car-share coops, building laundromats, tool libraries etc. for urban communities -- doing so is both harder and less sustainable when the users live in sprawl.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 16 May 06

"That's an understatement. I know of no data whatsoever to support a connection between sprawl (which in contemporary North America is the alternative to density) and environmental awareness, local eating, or anything else you're talking about... But maybe I'm mis-understanding you. What is it you're proposing?" - Alex Steffen

Yeah, perhapse your right. I was just hinting that there has to be limits to how high a highrise can be in a density model for it to be sustainable. What's the limit? 5 stories, 7 stories, 10, 20, 25? Would it be best for two 10 story complexes, four 5 story complexes, one 20 story complex, etc?

As for the food production & population growth, I think I was slightly basing it off of a 2-day conference by Daniel Quinn & Alan Thornhill. Quinn was a bit gibbery, but Thornhill had some interesting models. But at the same time, I think I misinterpreted their own analysis.

Video of the conference here:

But at the same time, I think you made a pretty valid case that urban sprawl makes possible the over-release of carbon-dioxide energy. As with the density model, the same exact thing could happen, unless shopping, working, consuming, and living, can all be retained within a certain range, ...or have one reliable energy-efficient/sustainable transit if shopping & working are at a greater distance away. I'm sure it can be done, ...just very carefully. Again, informed citizens that will not waiver will still be a requirement. None of that would be possible without the understanding & consent of the current participants of urban sprawl.

For instance, if someone tries to tell a family that a more sustainable & well-functioning model would be the density model and try to get them to give up their house in the urban-srawled neighborhood, what would you think would be their reaction if they didn't place global warming on the high list of things to be concerned about. Informed citizens are abolutely essential, but I'm sure that once this new model is in place, it may be much easier to consider, rather than just some vision that the average citizen may see as some pie-in-the-sky hippy flippy idea.

Posted by: Francis Scully on 16 May 06

A home with a 500 square foot foundation that houses 2 people has a footprint of 250 ft2/person. One to four floor structures would have 500-2,000 ft2 of living space.

The density of San Francisco, a city in which it's easy to live without a car, is 1,750 ft2/person. Manhattan, which has the highest density in the US, has 427 ft2/person.

Tokyo, one of the world's largest cities, is mostly lower-height buidlings, yet the density of the core of the city (its 23 wards) is only about half as dense as Manhattan.

So, building height isn't the issue, it's all the space we use for things that aren't housing people -- roads, parks, commercial and industrial space, other infrastructure, yards, etc.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 16 May 06

I hear that sprawl is just awful. So far, the arguments seem to be that we are a) taking up space that wild animals need, b) interfering with the watershed by putting in roofs and c) being ugly. Okay, ugly is in the eye of the beholder so I'm going to discard that right off.

What seems to be happening (in my limited observation) is that suburbs are sprawling arund metro areas. There are population winners, like Atlanta, for example, and population losers like the small towns of the Midwest. My question is: does the loss of population in one area offset the effect of sprawl?

As far as the watershed goes, what if we just catch the water?

I'm totally into the density concept, but I can't get my wife to consider it. She wants a yard. The bigger the yard the better. At least she prefers xeriscaping to extensive landscaping. I mean what you're talking about here is the REAL third rail of the world as we know it: Real Estate. Fxjk with real estate at your peril, my friends. The end of sprawl? Not in our lifetimes. They'll be stapling together American Dream homes out of discarded hurricane debris and parts of leftover FEMA trailers. As long as there are cars there will be sprawl.

Posted by: dsgeorge on 16 May 06

Heh. Do suburbs make good fertilizer?

Posted by: David Lucas on 16 May 06

Actauly there was sprawl back in the year 0. Suburbs are a roman invention and sprung up all over.

The fact is while there is a need for dense even hyper dense zones with good placement of work and shopping nearby the fact is we will have low density housing as well.

Oh and a nasty problem with low density hosuing is the tendancy to force homeowners to have a large lawn when they in fact want a large back yard. Zoning laws often force far larger front lawns then people want and sideyards far wider then they want as well.

Posted by: wintermane on 16 May 06

There is no optimum density which can be applied to all conurbations because social, environmental and economic needs vary according to local conditions such as climate, culture, geography, security, wealth and so on.

When designing new communities perhaps we should determine acceptance levels for environmental, social and economic criteria and, provided they are met, let density work itself out?

Posted by: Nick Davies on 17 May 06

What a great conversation you've started!
I would like, for those who aren't convinced, to put your numbers into perspective.
At current rates of suburbanization, outward growth will be roughly twice the rate of population growth. That means an additional 66% increase in the urbanized area of the United States.
Take the LA metro area as an example. Based on current rates of sprawl, it will grow from 5,000 to 8,000 square miles by 2030. LA will be approximately the size of New Jersey.

But it is about more than just land area. The three places where these 100 million people are expected to settle in the highest numbers? Southern California, Florida, and Phoenix/Las Vegas. There are a few resource issues yet to be worked out... maybe some weather issues... no big deal...

As for the following comments:

"As long as there are cars there will be sprawl." Not quite. As long as there is abundant cheap energy for housing & transportation and housing tax giveaways, there will be sprawl. That goes for renewable energy as well.

"ugly is in the eye of the beholder so I'm going to discard that right off." Not so fast! Ugly, it turns out, is not really that subjective. There is a great deal of agreement among North Americans as to what constitutes ugly development. For example, no one like commercial strips, not even the people who use them. Furthermore, aesthetic regulations are legally defensible. Making cities more beautiful is a big part of making them more sustainable.

"does the loss of population in one area offset the effect of sprawl?" No. You would have to un-develop at the same rate, and that's not happening.

"As far as the watershed goes, what if we just catch the water?" No. Although that's important for supply issues, it does nothing to address water quality problems caused by too much impervious surface & septic density.

"there was sprawl back in the year 0. Suburbs are a roman invention and sprung up all over." Not true (just because Robert Bruegmann says it don't make it so). Suburbs have always existed, probably before the Romans. That's not the same thing as sprawl, or else we lose the definition completely.

This I love! "let density work itself out?" IMO, Nick, that's exactly right! Density should be based on carrying capacity, and zoning can follow. Hi-density, low-impact, closed-loop, open-source cities! I'm in love!

Sorry for the long post.

Posted by: justus on 23 May 06



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