Making the Case for Compact Development

figure_0_7.jpgFrom the people at Smart Growth America comes word of a new book, Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change, just out from the Urban Land Institute. In the book, researchers argue that more compact development (such as Atlantic Station, a mixed-use complex in Atlanta built on reclaimed industrial land, shown at right) must play a key role if this country is to reduce emissions:

They warn that if sprawling development continues to fuel growth in driving, the projected 59 percent increase in the total miles driven between 2005 and 2030 will overwhelm expected gains from vehicle efficiency and low-carbon fuels. Even with projected efficiency improvements, vehicle emissions of carbon dioxide would be 41 percent above today’s levels, rather than well below 1990 levels as required for climate stabilization by 2050, according to Growing Cooler….

The report cites real estate projections showing that two-thirds of development expected to be on the ground in 2050 is not yet built, meaning that the potential for change is profound. The authors calculate that shifting 60 percent of new growth to compact patterns would save 85 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030. The savings over that period equate to a 28 percent increase in federal vehicle efficiency standards by 2020 (to 32 mpg), comparable to proposals now being debated in Congress….

The findings show that people who move into compact, "green neighborhoods" are making as big a contribution to fighting global warming as those who buy the most efficient hybrid vehicles, but remain in car-dependent areas.

While demand for such smart-growth development is growing, government regulations, government spending, and transportation policies still favor sprawling, automobile-dependent development. The book recommends changes in all three areas to make green neighborhoods more available and more affordable.

  • gecko

    From net-zero to net positive where buildings and vehicles generate more energy that they use is probably feasible with serious effort.

    Every watch all those people at 5:30 AM in health clubs on stationary bikes and treadmills or the intense reflections from window-walls of skyscrapers, or John Todd’s Living Machines waste management ecosystems?

    Just as cities are information and intelligence amplification centers they can be energy and eco-rejuvenation centers.

  • “more compact development (such as Atlantic Station, a mixed-use complex in Atlanta built on reclaimed industrial land, shown at right) must play a key role if this country is to reduce emissions”

    Judging from the picture, Atlantic Station – with a high-speed arterial slicing it in half and a freeway cutting it off from the rest of the city – is not a very good example of the sort of urban design needed to reduce automobile dependency.

    Of course, it is better than building low-density sprawl housing, but it would be still better to build a pedestrian-friendly street system.

  • Dan

    Charles is totally right. How do people get to these communities? They drive. I bet everyone who lives in Atlantic Station owns a car. Because they have to. Atlantic station could have the density of Hong Kong, but it would still be part of an extensive network of poorly planned towns and cities whose only connection is by car. Living in these kinds of artificially dense communities may produce better results in terms of small scale decisions but the factors that drive poorly scaled, auto dependent development are still driving the larger community.

    It will be very difficult in the short to medium term to overcome some of the most severe impediments to the success of good growth policies within the existing sprawl/growth patterns in cities like Atlanta. Density, at a certain point, can just not overcome generations of poor planning decisions.

    Dan

  • Dan and Charles: As a native of Atlanta, let me clarify a little bit about Atlantic Station.

    Atlantic Steel, which formerly sat on the site, was vacant nearly all my life, on prime land just north of Georgia Tech and across the [poorly sited] interstate from Midtown Atlanta. The land was extremely contaminated and neglected for years. Through EPA’s Brownfields reclamation program, which provided funding for the process, the land was cleaned up and returned to being a viable part of the city, at a time when suburban out-migration was happening rapidly.

    This project was incredibly difficult to assemble, but with the help of the EPA and countless other agencies along with private developers, it finally happened. The road that runs through the middle of the project has sidewalks on both sides, a park in the center with a bridge, and sidewalks ringing the park as well. It has ample crosswalks and calmed intersections for pedestrian travel. Any talk to make it a two or three lane street was a non-starter, per DOT.

    Atlanta is a long way from being able to support the car-free lifestyle in great numbers like New York City can. It’s just not nearly as dense, it’s more hilly, and has a long way to go with investments in transit and walkability before it happens in great numbers. People have to own a car there in much greater percentages than NYC.

    But remember that the point of this report isn’t about eliminating car use altogether, it’s about reducing VMT. New York has plenty of drivers as you can attest, but it has much lower VMT due to its design and density.

    Developments like Atlantic Station will help Atlanta reduce VMT by creating a place where none existed on unused industrial land in the core of the city, which means the projected 10,000 people who will live there one day take up significantly less space and drive less than 10,000 people placed elsewhere outside the city limits, due to their proximity to everything in Atlanta, even if they do drive there. If the Beltline is constructed, Atlantic Station will be tied into the new transit network ringing the city.

    If you lived at Atlantic Station and owned a car, by virtue of your location, your VMT will be significantly less (1/3 on average according to the report) than those who live in more sprawling areas. And isn’t that what we’re striving for? To give people who may still want to drive the option not to or to take fewer, shorter trips? Atlanta has a great series of walkable places and neighborhoods — largely disconnected from each other. By filling in the gaps with more density and walkable places, a large step is taken in the direction of having a walkable, transit-ready city. Dan, I’m not sure I understand your logic. Because it’s part of a auto-centric city, they shouldn’t have built Atlantic Station as they did? Would matching the low density of the auto-centric places been a better solution? 350 homes on 1-acre lots? Or leaving it open and providing less downtown housing and retail, encouraging more units to built on the fringe?

    Filling in underutilized areas with well-designed density is a huge step towards recreating the built environment over time, especially in lower density places like Atlanta. Who knows, in 50 years maybe they’ll cover the Connector a la the Big Dig and the area to the N. and the W. will become more urbanized due to the Beltline. And Atlantic Station will blend right in, as opposed to more of the status quo of the last 50 years.

    Atlanta can’t currently reverse the short-sighted decision leaders made more than 50 years ago to drive a spike through the center of downtown with the Connector. Unfortunately Jane Jacobs was busy elsewhere. 🙂 But the 17th Street Bridge has somewhere around 1/6 of its surface area dedicated to space for bikes, walkers, buses, and other non-car transportation modes.

    http://www.dot.state.ga.us/specialsubjects/17thstreetbridge/images/view6.jp

    Although a long walk (20+ minutes) from the nearest MARTA station in Midtown, a shuttle is provided back and forth across the Connector to the MARTA stop. If I lived at Atlantic Station, I could take the shuttle or walk to MARTA, and go see my brother in East Atlanta. Or I could take a short drive. My mother in a nearby suburb can only drive 35 miles. Which form of development has reduced VMT? Which one of us has transportation options?

    We have to reduce VMT to stem the tide of climate change. And projects like Atlantic Station, where drivers drive less, walkers can walk, and bikers can bike are one way to get it done.

  • Hilary

    Density yields other transportation efficiencies from an increasingly self-sufficient community. You know your neighbors, and from them you find childcare, friends, activities, handymen, car pooling, shared tools, even shared cars. I think 1/3 is probably way too low an estimate.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    There’s no question that Atlantic Station is an improvement over the standard sprawl, but I think Dan and Charles’ point is that it’s not going to do much by itself. In order to be sustainable, cities like Atlanta and Houston essentially need to be completely redesigned. Anything less is bailing with a thimble.

  • I didn’t mean to imply that Atlantic Station is a bad project. It is clearly a good project and a big improvement. But it is not the right example to illustrate a story about the sort of development that we need to fight global warming.

    We can reduce VMT significantly if we 1)fund public transportation rather than freeways and 2)build pedestrian-oriented development around the transit stations.

    There are plenty of examples of this sort of pedestrian- and transit-oriented development around the country – eg in Portland, Oregon, and Arlington, Virginia. The ULI should have used one of those examples as the ideal for other cities to emulate.

  • “There’s no question that Atlantic Station is an improvement over the standard sprawl, but I think Dan and Charles’ point is that it’s not going to do much by itself.”

    This is exactly the OPPOSITE of the results of the report. By building residences and retail for up to 10,000 people in one concentrated area, near transit, connected by a street grid with many other uses nearby, you have created a place that reduces overall VMT per capita.

    And it is the right example. It reduces VMT, and complete, sole-reliance on a personal automobile. People who live in Atlantic Station will drive significantly less than those who drive in more sprawling places of the Metro. And fortunately, it doesn’t have to do anything “by itself” because it wasn’t built in a vacuum, in a rural country, far from anything else.

    Charles, unfortunately, this isn’t on top of a transit station, which Atlanta has relatively few of. But the development results in less VMT, walking and biking are options, and a shuttle runs every five minutes to the nearby MARTA station.

    Portland is most definitely referenced in the report, but it’s important to remember that their VMT isn’t low just because they have transit. They still drive more miles than you or I can count. It’s low because a street grid, mix of uses, interconnected roadways, and access to transportation options make it possible for fewer, shorter trips, if you do have to drive at all. Which lowers VMT, reducing emissions, and lessening the impact on the climate.

    But agreed on funding transit over highways. Feel free to donate to or volunteer with the Beltline Parntership, which will largely determine the long-term fate of my hometown.

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