Best Practice

GreenStep City Best Practices: Land Use
Resilient City Growth {BP No. 7}

Increase financial and environmental sustainability by enabling and encouraging walkable housing and retail land use.

Best Practice Actions

a. Neighborhood single-family density at 7 units/acre or greater wherever urban services are available.
b. Multi-family housing at a gross density of at least 15 units/acre adjacent to a commercial zoning district or transit node.

a. Incorporate a flexible lot size/frontage requirement for infill development.
b. Use density and floor area ratio (FAR) bonuses in selected residential zoning districts.
c. Clustered residential development; tie a regulatory standard to comprehensive plan language defining compact city expansion zones that limit low-density development.
d. Allowing accessory dwelling units, single-room occupancy housing, senior housing, co-housing or tiny houses / apartments by right in selected zoning districts.
e. Implement a vacation rental property registration policy and/or special tax.

a. Include in the city zoning ordinance and zoning map a commercial district with zero-lot-line setbacks and  a FAR minimum of 1.
b. Set targets for the minimum number of employees/acre in different commercial zones.

Optional Best Practice for Step 3 Recognition

Category A, B and C cities: implement this best practice by completing any one action.

Optional Metric for Step 4 Recognition

Metric # 7: Land Use


Accommodating and paying for city growth on the existing city grid and by expanding the grid at nodes with the same or higher population density has multiple and long-term benefits to a city: financial (property taxes/acre), retail commercial, affordable housing, transportation, environmental and social benefits. Returns on such public grey and green infrastructure investments such as streets and boulevard trees are high. These investments help to incrementally raise land values, which combined with the ability of property owners to redevelop their property into something more intense, naturally prompts the redevelopment of property which is otherwise in a state of decline or stasis.

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, 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

Best Practice Advisor Photo

Brian Ross, Vice President - Renewable Energy, Great Plains Institute: 612/767-7296,,

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.


Major Benefit

  • 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 and to cost-effectively increase the stock of affordable housing. 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. But rather than some absolute density measure, the fundamental target for any city can be viewed as a target ratio of private investment to public investment somewhere between 20:1 on the risky end and 40:1 on the secure end.
  • 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 Center for Neighborhood Technology's 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).