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Stop Sprawl
Compact Growth

by Dr. John Holtzclaw

Do studies of urban growth confirm the contention that compact areas help preserve the environment and conserve energy? Let's consider three studies.

The first study looks at the educated, innovative and energy-wise residents of the university community of Davis, California, near Sacramento. In the l970s they rewrote their building code into an energy-conserving model for low density developments, primarily single family. Stringent energy conservation and use of solar efficient designs are mandated.

Yet, when Michael Phillips and Robert Gnaizda compared a recently constructed middle class single family tract in Davis with a middle class apartment house near downtown San Francisco, they got the results in Table l. The single-family home dwellers drove nearly 4 times as much! And transportation consumes nearly 2/3 of the nation's oil. The run of the mill urban apartments use less than 1/5 as much heating fuel as the energy-efficient Davis single-family houses. Sharing walls shares and saves heat. Exposing less wall and roof area to the sun reduces summer air conditioning loads. Residential and commercial heating, cooling, lighting and motors consume 20 percent of our country's oil. And the single-family houses consumed 40 times as much arable land--translated, that usually means the farmlands, ridgelands and wetlands we are working so hard to preserve. And they required 5 times as much utility pipes.

The second study is an extensive analysis of two models of suburban growth. In their 1974 study for the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), "The Costs of Sprawl," the Real Estate Research Corporation compared typical suburban single-family housing with suburban "high rise apartments."

However, at 33 units/acre, these "high rise apartments" are actually less dense than many older, comfortable urban neighborhoods. Densities of 50 to 100 units/acre are common with 3 to 6 story apartments, and to 400 with occasional highrises and no front-yard setbacks. Examples are the popular Nob Hill and Russian Hill areas of San Francisco traversed by cable cars climbing halfway to the stars. Since the study is of suburban "high rise apartments" with little transit, much land set is aside for parking lots, driveways and lawns.

Even these modest "high rise" densities save considerable materials and resources when compared with single family dwellings. The single family houses consume 4 times as much land for streets and roads and 10 times as much for the houses themselves. The single family houses use nearly 6 times as much metal and concrete, the mining of which threatens many of our natural areas. They consume over twice as much gas and nearly twice as much electricity, and produce over twice as much air pollution with their autos.

And third, let us take a high profile example: New York City. Even with its bright lights and cold climate, it uses half as much energy per capita as the US average, reported the New York Times on 15 November l981. Such are the benefits of transit and walking. All that, and great theatre, concerts, cheap ethnic restaurants, libraries and stores. Similarly, Europeans and Japanese, with compact urban areas, consume 1/4 to 1/6 as much gasoline per capita as we do.

But, compared to the gluttonous appetite of suburban sprawl, you can be much less dense than York City and still conserve substantial amounts of land, material and energy, as San Francisco densities of Table l show. Savings start occurring with densities which make transit service viable, frequent and convenient, so that people generally walk, bicycle and use public transit rather than driving, especially for commuting. A compatible mix of housing, commercial enterprises and industry helps. Homes are close to jobs, stores, restaurants, theatres, bars and recreation. The vitality and liveliness of this mix and density increase a city's attractiveness while cutting its consumption.

Table l. Phillips-Gnaizda

Resources City Apartments Village Houses Ratio
Copper pipe 2,000 ft. 10,000 ft. 5
Arable land 5,000 sq. ft. 200,000 sq. ft. 40
Roadway 1,000 sq. yds. 15,000 sq. yds. 15
Concrete 17,000 cu. yds. 9,000 cu. yds. 1/2
Lumber 25,000 board ft. 1,200,000 board ft. 50
Utility pipe 450 ft. 2,500 ft. 5
Daily postal delivery 12 ft. 3,000 ft. 300
Landscaping water 500 gals/day 35,000 gals/day 70
Heating 5,000 BTU/day 27,000 BTU/day 5
Individual auto 25,000 miles/month 90,000 miles/mo. 4

Phillips & Gnaizda, "New Age Doctrine is Out to Lunch on Three Issues,"
CoEvolution Quarterly, Summer 1980

Table 2 The Costs of Sprawl (1974 $)

Single family (3 units/acre) Moderate density* Ratio
Streets and Roads 3080 $/unit 801 $/unit 4
Utilities (metal and concrete) 5483 $/unit 958 $/unit 6
Water consumption 400 gal/day 190 gal/day 2
Gas 156 therms/mo. 66 therms/mo. 2
Electrical 10,481 KWh/yr. 6222 KWh/yr. 2
Air pollution from autos 2

* E "high Rise Apartments," the highest suburban density studied. (Central
city 4 - 6 story walkups with no front yard setbacks reach about 100
units/acre). In urban areas streets, roads and utilities will already be in
place, but "infill" might require some enlargement.

"The Costs of Sprawl," Real Estate Research Corporation, l974.

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