Compact Development Is a Greener Way for American Cities to Grow

Austin, Texas, is experiencing among the fastest population and economic growth in the country. Austin’s dynamic growth has brought benefits to many, lowering unemployment and poverty rates and making the city an attractive destination for workers and employers. But the sprawling nature of Austin’s growth also brings challenges – such as conversion of undeveloped land into development, persistent and worsening problems with traffic congestion, and growing concerns about the impact of development on water quality. The health of Austin’s reservoirs has declined in recent years, while urban floods like the deadly 2015 Memorial Day flood have caused millions of dollars in damage.


Sprawl and lack of access to public transportation are exacerbating car dependence in Austin. People living in compact neighborhoods drive 20 to 40 percent less than those living in sprawling neighborhoods, using less energy and producing fewer emissions. Photo: Jon Lebkowsky via Flickr, CC-BY-SA 2.0.

Austin and other rapidly growing, tech-friendly cities face a choice – continue to grow mainly through new development on the urban fringe, or find ways to accommodate more people and businesses within existing neighborhoods. To accommodate the continued influx of new people to the city, Austin is currently revising its land development code in a process called CodeNEXT. This revision is an opportunity for one of America’s fastest-growing cities to embrace a more environmentally sustainable pathway for its future development.

Today, Frontier Group is releasing a new white paper that lays out the environmental case for compact development. Living in compact mixed-use neighborhoods makes it cheaper and easier to reduce carbon emissions, protect water quality, lower water consumption, and ensure many other environmental benefits:

  • Better water quality: Compact development reduces the total amount of land required for development and produces less total runoff in a watershed than sprawling development for the same amount of housing capacity.
  • Lower energy use and fewer greenhouse gas emissions: University of Texas at Austin researchers have found that a compact neighborhood with duplexes and low-rise apartments, like Riverside, consumes 50 percent less energy per day than a neighborhood of single-family homes. People living in compact neighborhoods drive 20 to 40 percent less than those living in sprawling neighborhoods, using less energy and producing fewer emissions.
  • Lower 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.
  • Lower water consumption: Reducing lot sizes can help decrease water demand for landscaping and other outdoor uses, which peaks in the summer and accounts for more than a fifth of Austin’s water consumption year-round.
  • Improved regional air quality: Compact cities have been found to experience up to 62 percent fewer high ozone days than sprawling cities. Ozone pollution causes approximately 2,100 premature deaths in Texas each year.

Our new report, Growing Greener, also identifies strategies to mitigate the potential local impacts of compact development. For instance, green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) mimics the natural environment and absorbs rainfall. Most green stormwater infrastructure features, like rain gardens or bioswales, can absorb between 45 and 99 percent of rainfall, and can therefore prevent flooding during less severe storms.

Failing to provide places within cities like Austin for population growth to take place virtually assures the continuation of the region’s sprawling development patterns. Revising Austin’s land development code is an opportunity to give the city the tools it needs to sustainably manage its growth, build a greener city, and lead by example.


The clubhouse of John Gaines Park in the Mueller redevelopment features a green roof and rain gardens. Green stormwater infrastructure uses plants, soil, and natural drainage to capture and cleanse rain where it falls. Photo: Brian Zabcik.