Benefits of Sustainable Urban Development


Benefits of Well-Designed Sustainable Urban Communities
The number of benefits arising from sustainable, higher-density city-building are considerable, as the following list of 42 general benefits demonstrates. Benefits are so widespread that virtually everyone becomes a winner; there are no significant disadvantages to well-designed sustainable communities.
The magnitude of benefits begs the question, "Why aren't all cities built this way?" The answer lies mostly in the availability of inexpensive and plentiful energy in the 20th century (especially for transportation), rural land near cities was available and accessible, and the way in which older urban areas have been developed, maintained were poorly regarded by government and people in general.
The 21st century will be very unlike the 20th, and cities will need to grow very differently than in the past. In particular, fossil fuel energy will become much more expensive and, through its emissions of greenhouse gases and toxins, s a danger to our shared environmental life support systems. The consumption of rural lands for suburban development is regarded more and more as a threat to future food security, since most cities first grew where soil conditions for farming were best.
Please note that the following list of benefits is in no particular order of significance or category.  (Note: The term 'higher density' is repeated often in the following list, and has been defined by SUDA as being a variable average of at least 100 residents and jobs per gross hectare, not including natural areas of significant value preserved from urbanization.) 
  1. Improved affordability for housing
More densely-built communities have a greater share of apartments and townhouses, which are less expensive than detached homes. In addition, higher-density housing has lower maintenance costs than single detached houses.
  1. Reduced private costs for transportation
When communities are built to be walkable, have many destinations close by, and good transit services, less travel by automobile is required. This means that some families may be able to leave the car at home most days, which results in lower costs for insurance, maintenance and fuel, or give up their car entirely.
  1. Less overall hardship for households
Because costs for indoor climate control and for transportation are less in sustainable urban communities, overall hardship for households is reduced. As energy and fuel costs rise in the future, this will become increasingly important.
  1. Lower household expenditures enable better trade-offs between work and family life
As mentioned above, sustainable urban communities ease the financial burden on households. When household expenditures are lower, fewer hours of work are needed to support the household. This means that more time can be spent with family and friends, living life rather than living to work.
  1. More efficient public infrastructure and lower infrastructure costs
When the population density is higher, there is less road and utility infrastructure needed per capita for a given area. This means that the infrastructure can be built more efficiently, and less infrastructure per capita means that the costs of infrastructure stay lower for everyone.
  1. Reduced costs of servicing/maintaining public infrastructure
When growth is accommodated at 100 or more people and jobs per hectare, the municipal servicing costs to serve these communities, borne by all residential taxpayers is much less compared to more sparsely populated areas. For instance, if there are several times as many people per road lane meter, everyone pays less. If there are many more people living or working by a transit route, ridership per bus increases and public subsidies decrease.
  1. More effective use of public facilities
Sustainable urban communities are built so that public facilities like libraries, parks, and community centers are easy to get to. This improves access, especially for people who do not have cars. In addition, one library, pool, etc. can serve more people if it is in a densely-populated area than if the community is geographically spread out.
  1. Better transit services enabled
More people living along a transit route means higher demand for transit service, including both local and commuter express services. Public acceptability of transit service improvements increases.
  1. Higher revenue-to-cost ratios for public transit services
In sustainable urban environments, governments benefits from higher transit ridership, which improves revenues relative to service costs.
  1. Lower pressures on property taxes
The efficiencies inherent in higher-density communities means reduced tax pressures on households and businesses. This means that property taxes can be reduced, public services improved, or a combination of the two.
  1. Higher municipal property tax revenues per gross hectare
When people are accommodated at twice the density of traditional development, there are more people paying taxes per hectare. This means that the government's revenue from property taxes is higher per hectare.
  1. Reduced per capita energy consumption for public services
When you have more people using the same service, the per capita energy consumption for that service drops. This means that governments have to spend less money on energy for public services, relative to the number of residents.
  1. More efficient delivery of water and wastewater services
When everything is closer together, the distance that water must be pumped to households and the distance that wastewater must be pumped away is smaller. This results in a system that is much more efficient than one that would need to be built for a spread-out community. It also saves money, because energy is needed to pump water.
  1. Buildable land supply time horizon expanded
The amount of land in a municipality is finite. When housing and commerce are accommodated at a higher density, more land remains available for future growth.
  1. Improved profit margins for land developers
Developers can benefit from sustainable urban development as well. When more residential or non-residential units are built per hectare, revenues per hectare increase, with no increase in land costs.
  1. Possibly less traffic congestion
When communities are built so that everything is close together, many everyday destinations are within walking or cycling distance, and transit services can be improved. This results in more trips being taken by walking, transit, and cycling, and trips by car tend to be shorter. Fewer cars on the road and shorter trips mean less traffic congestion.
  1. Greater potential for shared (public) parking; reduced parking requirements for property owners
When different land uses are mixed and closer by, the potential for shared parking facilities improves. As transit services improve and walking takes a higher share of all trips, there is a reduced need for parking overall.
  1. Household energy savings for HVAC
When there are more attached and multi-unit buildings in a community, relatively less exterior building surface per person is exposed to the weather, reducing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) costs. HVAC systems can serve several families, which makes the entire process more efficient.
  1. Reduced HVAC costs for business
Similarly to number 18 above, when businesses are accommodated in multi-unit buildings, a single HVAC system can serve several businesses, and there is reduced exposure to weather. Energy efficiency saves money.
  1. Reduced impact of energy price shocks to public and private sectors
Energy prices, especially for oil and natural gas, are likely to move erratically higher at a rapid rate over the next several decades. Transportation and HVAC efficiencies inherent in higher-density sustainable communities means reduced exposure to global energy price shocks, and financial sustainability for households and commerce.
  1. Better mix and choice of residential accommodation
In the past, communities were built primarily of subdivisions of single detached houses catering to households with children. Building new communities, or infilling existing suburban ones, with a higher proportion of attached housing and apartments better matches the demographics of today and the future. This leads to a wider range of choice for people who are looking for places to live in or near their current neighbourhood.
  1. More vibrant public/civic environment; improved social interaction
Communities that are built to be closer together tend to be more close-knit than those that are spread out. When destinations and amenities are close by, people tend to spend more time walking in their community, fostering more social contact with neighbours and increasing their sense of ownership of the neighbourhood.
  1. Public safety/crime prevention benefits of more "eyes on the street"
More people walking in a neighbourhood means more "eyes on the street", which helps to deter crime and improves public safety.
  1. Diverse and walkable mixed communities attract businesses and enhance the creative/innovative spirit
Business is attracted to pleasant, diverse, vibrant, and high-density communities where amenities are close by. This enhances the economic base of the community. In addition, such vibrant communities foster a positive spirit that attracts innovative, creative individuals.
  1. Improved viability of arts and culture
Artists and creative personalities are attracted to vibrant, high-density communities where there are plenty of opportunities for social interaction and housing is affordable. Arts and cultural festivals may be better attended in high-density communities, as access is easier by transit and travel distances are shorter.
  1. Increased tourism
Tourism is attracted to vibrant and interesting communities. Nobody goes on a 'let's visit the suburbs' vacation. Tourists are attracted when there is much to see and do in a walkable environment.
  1. Improved viability for small business
In communities where multi-unit buildings for commerce predominate, the cost of heating, ventilating and air conditioning are lower. In addition, where business locations are more accessible, such as in a 'mainstreet' environment, smaller businesses - from shops to restaurants to financial planners - benefit from improved visibility and walk-in business traffic.
  1. Better access and choice of jobs and services within the community
When uses are mixed and in a higher density environment, more opportunities to work closer to home exist. Travel times to and from work are reduced, reducing stress and leaves more time for family and friends.
  1. Larger, more diverse labour pool for business nearby
In higher density, mixed-use urban areas, employers benefit by having a larger, more diverse labour pool nearby.
  1. Greater sense of community responsibility by business
When land uses are mixed, businesses are integrated into the community rather than isolated in a "business park". When business is located in the community, it is more likely to have a sense of community responsibility, and therefore more likely to "give back" through philanthropy and community betterment.
  1. Improved personal health due to more walking, less driving
When more destinations are closer together in a safe and pleasant environment, people are encouraged to drive less and walk and cycle more. Studies have shown that people who live in sprawling car-dependent communities are at greater risk of obesity and disease related to sedentary living, such as heart disease and diabetes.
  1. Reduced per capita emissions of greenhouse gases
Sustainable urban communities are much more energy-efficient. This means fewer per-capita emissions of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
  1. Reduced per capita emissions of toxins from transportation and property maintenance
Lower energy requirements for indoor climate control and lower rates of car use in sustainable communities mean that per capita emissions of toxins are lower. Energy use creates toxins such as smog, and acid rain. More efficient use of land means fewer chemicals and other products used to maintain buildings, parking lots and outdoor spaces such as lawns.
  1. Greater potential for efficient delivery of energy
When everything is closer together, less infrastructure is needed to deliver electricity, oil and natural gas.
  1. Reduced stormwater runoff
When communities are built to be denser, more lands are left in their natural state. In addition, sustainable communities have a lower percentage of their land covered by impermeable surfaces such as roads. Fewer impermeable surfaces and more natural lands mean less stormwater runoff, which reduces flooding.
  1. Reduced consumption of material resources for construction of buildings
Dense communities are more resource-efficient than low-density communities. One apartment building can house many families while using fewer resources per occupant (e.g. numerous living units between one basement and one roof). Similarly, row housing needs requires fewer materials for adjoining walls than detached homes. This leads to more natural resources preserved.
  1. More rural and agricultural lands preserved; more habitats preserved for wildlife
When communities are built to be compact and dense, more people are accommodated per square kilometre. This means that less land is needed to accommodate the population. This results in the preservation of more rural and agricultural lands, and the habitat that they provide for wildlife.
  1. Improved personal health from less air pollution
When communities are built to be sustainable, they are built to reduce use of cars and other consumers of energy as much as possible. Emissions from cars, fossil fuel power plants and natural gas production are responsible for smog, which can cause or worsen health problems such as asthma and emphysema.
  1. More consistent school enrolments
A demographically-balanced, high density community will provide a steady stream of children to local schools for the useful life of the school building. What this means is that schools do not become depopulated once a single generation of children has passed through, as happens in many typical subdivisions.
  1. Less school bussing required
Again, when everything is close together, more families will live within walking distance of school. When more families can walk to school, the amount of school bussing - and therefore the cost of providing this service - drops. Traffic congestion around schools will also be reduced.
  1. Recognition for true political leadership and planning excellence in progressive, sustainable city-building
Truly sustainable urban communities are rare, yet clearly advantageous. Decisions to discard traditional suburban growth in favour of sustainable city-building demonstrate progressive and dramatic political leadership and planning, and positive recognition from government and industry organizations, and from the public.
  1. Density, Density
A key requirement in moving towards environmental sustainability is to increase the population densities of urban areas. Higher population densities mean more natural and agricultural lands saved, more efficient transportation systems, and public maintenance that use less energy and material resources.
Here in the Greater Golden Horseshoe region of Southern Ontario, almost 3.7 million new residents and 2 million new jobs will have to be accommodated in the next 25 years. Here are a few rounded population density figures for the region:


Residents/Square km
Residents/Square mile
Former(unamalgamated) City of Toronto
Amalgamated Toronto (pop. 2,600,000)
Mississauga (mature pop. 715,000)
Hamilton + Regions of Peel, Halton, York and Durham
Cornell community (Markham)
Planned North Oakville Commmunity



Efficient Vehicles vs. Efficient Transportation

A March 2005 study by Todd Litman (Victoria Transport Policy Institute) compared impacts of common measures to reduce travel by automobile. The study found that increasing fuel efficiency standards tends to increase travel mileage to some degree, producing a net overall cost to society when external diseconomies such as congestion, accidents, parking and roadway costs are added in.  Using alternative fuels produces the same effect as increased vehicle efficiency standards, but to a lesser degree.  Higher fuel taxes have a net positive effect because they reduce vehicle miles traveled and therefore, reduce external diseconomies. Mobility management - compact land use, road and parking pricing, availability of alternative travel modes, marketing of local services - has the greatest positive impact in reducing kilometers traveled, depending on how much mobility management is applied.
The study did not delve into why people choose to drive. Travel habits are largely dependent on personal convenience, financial affordability, environmental conscience, and personal health. If you don't care about the environment and you have lots of money to spend, you will be likely be influenced only by convenience factors, such as traffic congestion. If you have modest means and don't care about the environment, both fuel taxes and mobility measures will influence you to reduce driving. If you have respiratory problems, or a strong environmental conscience, you will want everyone to reduce motor vehicle use. The prevalence and distribution of attitudes and individual circumstances in the population will affect what measures would be needed to improve environmental conditions.