The Myth of the Compact City: Why Compact Development Is Not the Way to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions

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Proponents of compact development argue that rebuilding American urban areas to higher densities is vital for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Compact city policies call for reducing driving by housing a higher percentage of people in multi-family and mixed-use developments, reducing the average lot sizes of single-family homes, redesigning streets and neighborhoods to be more pedestrian friendly, concentrating jobs in selected areas, and spending more on mass transit and less on highways.

The Obama administration has endorsed these policies. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan have agreed to require metropolitan areas to adopt compact-development policies or risk losing federal transportation and housing funds. LaHood has admitted that the goal of this program is to “coerce people out of their cars.”


As such, compact-development policies represent a huge intrusion on private property rights, personal freedom, and mobility. They are also fraught with risks. Urban planners and economists are far from unanimous about whether such policies will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Some even raise the possibility that compact city policies could increase emissions by increasing roadway congestion.

Such reductions are insignificant compared with the huge costs that compact development would impose on the nation. These costs include reduced worker productivity, less affordable housing, increased traffic congestion, higher taxes or reduced urban services, and higher consumer costs.

Those who believe we must reduce carbon emissions should reject compact development as expensive, risky, and distracting from tools, such as carbon taxes, that can have greater, more immediate, and more easily monitored effects on greenhouse gas emissions.

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‘Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.’