Compact, connected and green

By Luke Metzger
Executive Director

Sprawl is a well-known enemy of the environment. Sadly, Austin’s current Land Development Code encourages — and in many cases requires — this type of land gobbling, water and energy consuming development that generates more and longer car trips than compact urban areas and far more carbon emissions.

There is no environmental case for accommodating Austin’s rapid population increase with more sprawling, car-dependent development.

Austin is sprawling at a faster rate than Dallas or Houston because of our land use policies. We can no longer afford to overlook the systemic ways our policies have downright encouraged the opposite of good environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability.

The lawns may be green, but as a new study from Environment Texas Research and Policy Center details, suburban building is far worse for the environment than compact urban development by almost every measure:

Energy consumption: A neighborhood of single-family homes can consume 50 percent more energy per day than a densely developed neighborhood with duplexes and low-rise apartments.
Water Use: Outdoor uses, like lawn watering, account for more than a fifth of total water use, with a summertime peak. Maximizing building to lot ratios can decrease landscape water demand as well as overall water demand.
Car Dependency: People living in compact neighborhoods drive 20 to 40 percent less than those living in sprawling neighborhoods, using less energy and lowering air-polluting emissions. Energy used for transportation generates 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Travis County — more than all the electricity used in every home across the City of Austin.
Flood Risk: Taller buildings accommodate more people while covering less land. Compact urban development minimizes the amount of paved land at the watershed scale, which decreases runoff and combats flood risks.

In revising the city’s land development code through CodeNEXT, Austin has an incredible opportunity to reshape how our city develops for the next generation.

Compact development is a core objective of the CodeNEXT process, which seeks to allow more housing and employment opportunities in the central city, allowing more to live near their jobs and providing the density needed along major corridors to support the robust mass transit Austin needs. Compact development limits land consumption and flood risks, improves water quality and stream health, lowers water consumption, limits greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and transportation, reduces energy use and intensity, and improves regional air quality.

Dense urban development is also more resilient, an increasingly important feature in the face of global warming. Through smart public policy, Austin can mitigate many of the local impacts of compact development.  Green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) mimics the way the natural environment absorbs rainfall. Most types of GSI, like rain gardens or bioswales, can absorb between 50 and 90 percent of rainfall, and can therefore potentially fully prevent flooding during less severe storms.

Austin continues to attract nearly 150 new residents a day to Central Texas, but our current land code is ill-prepared to deal with this growth. Without changes, our 30-year- old land code will effectively ensure Austin’s growth inflicts significant damage to our environment and overall community health.

Change can be difficult, but attempting to stop or severely restrict growth in the urban core has a long, proven track record of only making our most vexing challenges – including environmental protections and mobility — worse. As we enter this new critical stage in the CodeNEXT process, we must ensure that its provisions lay the foundation for a more compact, livable and environmentally sustainable Austin. By doing so, Austin can meet its growth challenges, protect our environment, and set a real example of environmental leadership for other rapidly growing cities to follow.