PCDForum Column #54, Release Date June 25, 1993
by William E. Rees and Mark Roseland
Developing sustainable communities will require an unprecedented emphasis on
reducing urban sprawl and its unsustainable consequences. Such an effort must
simultaneously create more efficient use of urban space, reduced consumption of
material and energy resources, improved community livability, and improved
administrative and planning processes capable of dealing effectively,
sensitively, and comprehensively with the social and environmental complexity of
Most North American cities were built using technologies that assumed an
inexhaustible abundance of cheap energy and land. These communities grew
inefficiently, becoming increasingly dependent on lengthy distribution systems.
Cheap energy fostered an addiction to the automobile, and increased the
separation of work places from homes.
Urban sprawl is the legacy of abundant fossil fuel and a perceived right to
unrestricted use of the private car, whatever the social costs and
externalities. Per capita gasoline consumption in many cities in the United
States and Canadian is now more than four times that of European cities. It is
over 10 times greater than in high density cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo.
These differences in consumption are not due to large car sizes and low gasoline
prices, so much as differences in the efficiency and compactness of land-use
patterns. Sprawling suburbs are arguably the most economically, environmentally,
and socially costly pattern of residential development humans have ever devised.
The negative local and regional level consequences of sprawl such as
congestion, urban air pollution, and commuting distances between home and work
are now widely recognized. Less widely acknowledged are the global ramifications
of North American land-use patterns. Largely because of low density sprawl, the
residents of Canadian cities produce about twice as much carbon dioxide per
capita as do Amsterdam residents.
A San Jose, California study compared the environmental demands of 13,000
new residential units contained within an urban "greenbelt" with the
same number if they were built in the usual exurban pattern. The exurban homes
would require 200,000 more miles of auto commuting and three million more
gallons of water per day. The exurban units would also require 40 percent more
energy for heating and cooling than would their urban counterparts.
Cities with low "automobile dependence" are more centralized; use
land more intensively; place more restraints on high-speed traffic; and offer
better public transit, walking, and cycling facilities. This points to the
considerable need for a new approach to urban transportation planning and
traffic management. In the past several decades transportation planning has
consisted largely of reacting to increasing highway congestion, which often is a
direct result of the low-density outward expansion of the city, by building more
highways. This pattern is painfully evident in many of the rapidly growing
cities of the South, such as Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok. If sustainability is to
be taken seriously, transportation planning must become a tool for inducing
changes in the physical layout of cities.
Similar reforms are needed in urban land-use planning and controls.
Metropolitan planning must shift away from the prevailing assumption that the
primary urban access will be by automobile or even mass transit. Planning for
sustainable urban centers must be based on the contrary assumption that people
will be concentrated in the urban center and that access will be determined
primarily by the proximity of residences to work, recreation, shopping, and
Urban sprawl can be contained by setting limits on physical expansion and
favoring alternatives to the automobile. Appropriate measures include limiting
automobile access to inner cities, levying regional carbon dioxide taxes,
restricting parking availability, and using traffic calming street designs.
Governments, investors, and banks should all be required to analyze
alternative long-term least-cost strategies for transportation and land use
investments. This would tend to give pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit
riders priority over the automobile. It would favor building surface light rail
and bikeway systems connecting higher density pedestrian-friendly city and
suburban centers. It would favor building bicycle parking garages and policies
that slow down car traffic to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.
The models and strategies for limiting urban sprawl through innovative
provincial/state planning, local government initiatives, and public-community
partnerships are available. Promoting their more extensive use is an area that
merits major attention from nonprofit organizations.
William E. Rees is a Professor in the School of Community and Regional
Planning, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Mark Roseland was a
Ph.D. Candidate in the same school and teaches in the Resource Management
Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. This column was produced and
distributed by the PCDForum based on their article "Sustainable
Communities: Planning for the 21st Century," Plan Canada, May 1991.