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GreenStep City Best Practices Land Use

Efficient City Growth
no. 7

Promote financial and environmental sustainability by enabling and encouraging walkable housing and commercial land use.

  Best Practice Actions    [See action tools, guidance, city reports]

benefits  
  • Market research shows that a majority of future U.S. housing demand lies in smaller homes and lots, townhouses and condominiums in walkable neighborhoods where jobs and activities are close at hand. The Minnesota organization Strong Towns presents evidence for why cities must grow in this manner to remain financially solvent. Land uses that generate too little property tax to maintain city infrastructure, demographic changes (including shrinking households), periodically high gas prices, lengthening commutes and cultural shifts all point to the need for this smarter (re)development.
  • A 2015 Smart Growth America study shows the 20-year public costs, revenues, and net fiscal impact of four different housing mix strategies in West Des Moines, IA. The more walkable, urban approach to growth would generate an estimated annual net fiscal impact of $11.2 million — $3.7 million more per year than low density development.
  • The US DOT/HUD Location Affordability Index estimates the percentage of a family's income dedicated to housing, transportation, and the combined cost of both in a given location – city, region, or neighborhood. Transportation costs are largely a function of the characteristics of the neighborhood in which a household chooses to live. Compact and dynamic neighborhoods with walkable streets and high access to jobs, transit, and a wide variety of businesses allow a household to afford more expensive housing because transportation costs can be cut dramatically.
  • Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions (National Research Board: 2009).
  • Research on Factors Relating to Density and Climate Change (National Association of Home Builders: 2010). Increasing residential density from 2 units per acre to 20 units/acre - 10-20 units being the density at which drivable suburbanism transitions into walkable urbanism - results in about the same savings in carbon emissions as the increase from 20 to 200 units/acre.
  • The Air Quality Assessment Tool for Local Land Use (Metropolitan Council: 2010) provides local decision makers with the vehicle-miles traveled changes and air quality impacts of different proposed land use patterns. To use the tool, nine data elements are needed (including number of intersections and street links) for the existing (or recent typical) development and for the proposed development. E-mail Mark.Filipi@metc.state.mn.us for a copy of this tool.
 
Optional for category A, B and C cities
All Category A, B and C cities that choose to implement this best practice are recognized upon completion of at least one action.
summary
Accommodating and paying for city growth on the existing city grid and by expanding the grid at the same or higher population density has multiple and long-term financial (property taxes/acre), retail commercial, environmental and social benefits to a city. Returns on such public investments are high. The alternative - large-lot single-family neighborhoods outside the city grid and distant business parks and malls financed and maintained by anticipated future low-density development - cements in long-term, typically higher, costs for provision of city services such as transit, higher personal transportation costs and carbon emissions, and more driving and stormwater generation.

Building lot coverage is set by city codes for different zoning districts, and each city must decide on just how 'building-dense' one or more city districts will be, and how much open space and vegetation (which have benefits such as heat island mitigation) are required.

Changes in the density of selected zoning districts are best paired with changes in four other urban design elements to effect the greatest benefits, such as decreasing vehicle miles traveled. These elements - the 5 Ds addressed in other GreenStep best practices and modeled for effectiveness (elasticity) by the Metropolitan Council in 2010 - are:

  • Density
  • Design (of streets, buildings, block size; connectivity)
  • Diversity (of land uses, including the jobs-housing balance)
  • Destination Accessibility (distance from common trip destinations; price of parking)
  • Distance-to-Transit
greenstep advisor
Carissa Schively Slotterback, Urban and Regional Planning Program of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota: 612/625-0640, cschively@umn.edu, http://www.hhh.umn.edu/people/cschively/
connection to state Policy

  • Thrive MSP 2040, the current Twin Cities' metro area development vision produced by the Metropolitan Council, sets housing density goals for nine city typologies.