Sustainable cities bring people together in close but livable quarters, abandoning the low-density model that has prevailed in many cities. Compact cities offer two overarching advantages. First, they generally require fewer resources per person: the land, pipes, and communications and transport infrastructure needed to serve each person in a community decreases as people live closer together. In compact cities, structures and spaces also tend to get greater use, with fewer or shorter periods of idleness each day or season than is characteristic in low-density cities.1

Compact cities tend to enhance connectedness of all kinds—physical, social, and economic.

Second, compact cities tend to enhance connectedness of all kinds—physical, social, and economic—generating innovation, economic activity, and social and cultural capital. Some scholars see cities fundamentally as social networks whose primary role is to expand connectivity per person and to increase social inclusion—prerequisites for realizing cities’ full socioeconomic potential. (See Chapters 18 and 19.) Human connectedness is central to civic life, and a compact city is best able to enhance connectedness of all kinds. Connectedness has many dimensions, including accessible and affordable transportation, robust digital infrastructure, ample indoor and outdoor public meeting spaces, and unobstructed corridors for wildlife. When these networks of connection are dense and functioning properly, they correlate with vibrant and prosperous cities.2

Compact cities are created through interventions in many different facets of city life, including land use, housing, transportation, buildings, and the digital sphere.

Land Use

Compact cities use land intensively. They tend to feature interconnected streets, mixed-use buildings and spaces, and development that encourages local self-sufficiency of daily life. City layout is in the pattern of a dense web of similar-size streets, rather than the hierarchy of freeways, arterials, and side streets—often featuring cul-de-sacs, dead ends, and other disconnected patterns—that characterize low-density cities. (See Chapter 7.) In less-compact development, the hierarchy of streets often leads to choke points as rivers of traffic are channeled into a few major roads, requiring widening over time, typically making biking and walking dangerous. These arterials also tend to attract “big box” outlets, whereas smaller streets with a mix of uses tend to support small retail establishments. More-convenient land-use patterns reduce car journeys, congestion, and the energy needed for transport, and increase air quality, cycling, and walking.3

Housing

Many cities feature a hub-and-spoke transportation system that brings workers from the city’s periphery to its center. This development pattern is a function of car dependence and cheap fuel, which supported the logic of putting housing in the suburbs and jobs in the cities. But with congestion and other limitations of car dependence and the likelihood that fuel will not always be cheap (see Chapter 5), cities increasingly understand the need to bring workers closer to employment. In regions where housing is expensive (in the United States, some 12 million households spend half of their income on housing, a share that rises to 60–70 percent when transportation costs are added in), housing located near multi-modal transportation options can help ease the housing and transportation burden on citizens. Incentives to promote this include measures—such as density bonuses, fee waivers, expedited permits, and tax credits—that encourage developers to include affordable housing units within a given project, or to undertake infill redevelopment.4

Transportation

Transportation done well enhances connectedness, making flows of people easy, convenient, and affordable, in contrast to car-centered development, which can block connectedness because of congestion-related delays and the presence of major arterials that cut off cross streets. Sustainable cities will need to shift from car-oriented urban patterns (such as cul-de-sacs and expressways) to transit-oriented patterns (such as mobility hubs, intensified corridors, and transit-oriented development). (See Chapter 11.)5

Transportation done well enhances connectedness, making flows of people easy, convenient, and affordable.

Sustainable cities will emphasize walking, biking, and public transit in their transportation mix. Multi-modal approaches to transportation ease the pressure on any single mode and attract high-density development where different modes meet. They also increase access to transportation by helping to meet the needs of diverse sets of people, such as the elderly, children, and low-income residents.6

Streets will likely look different in a sustainable, compact city. In residential areas, concepts such as shared space, home zones, and woonerfs (“living streets”) can be used to re-create residential streets as a social space, with plentiful planters, benches, and other ornamental features that create inviting areas where children play and adults mingle. Only secondarily are such streets a throughway for vehicles; cars appear infrequently and navigate carefully and slowly. In commercial areas and downtown, the “complete streets” concept can create a lively but safe environment in which auto traffic, bus lanes, bike lanes, and parking have designated spaces, each safely segregated from the others.7

Buildings

As cities work to create new housing and transportation options, they can adopt green building standards for both new and existing stock, starting with city-owned buildings to create a market for green building materials and practices. (See Chapter 9.) They might take their lead from the City of Los Angeles, which adopted a Green Retrofit and Workforce ordinance that not only promotes energy-efficient retrofits, which saves energy, but creates jobs and improves social equity by doing so in low-income communities.8

Access to the Internet and other digital tools is increasingly a necessity for robust civic life.

Digital Sphere

Access to the Internet and other digital tools is increasingly a necessity for robust civic life because it is the entry point to many cultural and economic activities. A study of 275 U.S. metropolitan areas conducted for the social networking site LinkedIn found that regions with the highest levels of connectedness experienced job growth of 8.2 percent between 2010 and 2014, compared with just 3.5 percent in the least-connected regions. Notably, the strong correlation held even when controlling for region size and for low and high levels of technology industry presence. The study also cites research concluding that connected entrepreneurs are more likely to be successful and that connected scientists are likely to have more patents. A sustainable city will offer robust opportunities for accessing the Internet and for other digital connections, perhaps through citywide provision of a public Wi-Fi system.9

See references for this text.

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Gary Gardner

Gary Gardner is director of publications at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director and contributing author of the State of the World project.

Read more in State of the World: Can a City Be Sustainable?