Land Use and the Importance of Density

By Carl Wojciechowski

How we use land impacts our lives and the environment in a myriad of ways. When food is grown far from where it is consumed CO2 is emitted in transportation. Where the farms are located and strain local water sources. Low density construction destroys swaths of forests that contain valuable habitat. Building sprawling suburbs can create traffic problems and pollution as workers from far flung parts of a metropolitan area jostle to reach the city center where jobs are. Limited housing stock in cities leads to skyrocketing home prices, leaving the most disadvantaged without proper housing. Disparate as they may seem, all of the above are connected. To solve many of these problems, we need more density in our urban cores.

Density of the New York City Metropolitan Area, showing the dense urban core and less dense outer fringes. Source: US Census

As our cities sprawl outward, they use up land at the fringes of the metropolitan area. What this land is made up of is dependent on the area, but in many areas it will be agricultural land. Our current model of food distribution and consumption reflects an inefficient system of food distribution. With some exceptions like farmer’s markets, our fruits and vegetables are likely flown in from far flung states or countries. However, if we had a more efficient system of growing food locally, we would want farms to be relatively close in to the city. The building of suburban housing can eat up enormous amounts of land and restrictions on expanding outward.

This can also have an impact on forests. Thought forest cover has grown overall over the past few decades, in the northeast some 133,000 hectares of forest were lost to the development of homes other urban amenities between 1990 and 2010. This is a direct impact on the forest due to sprawl. The pattern of home-building in the exurbs of many cities in the northeast is to carve into forests to build home developments, shopping centers and golf courses which use up large amounts of land. This is opposed to denser development further into the urban core would allow for similar population growth at rate that doesn’t impact land use.

Sprawl in Orange County New York. This photograph shows how the establishment of Harriman-Bear Mountain State Parks, on the right, helped contain some of the sprawl. Source: Google Maps

Density restrictions within urban cores can also have an impact on inequality within our cities. Brookings showed that land use restrictions, such as restricting multi-family dwellings in given areas can have an adverse impact on low income families that can’t afford a single family home. As regulation of land use has risen, migration of lower skilled workers to areas with opportunity has fallen. This means that low skill workers cannot afford to move to areas with economic opportunities because the cost of housing is too high a barrier to overcome. This has even been cited as one possible reason for rising income inequality as low income workers are unable to pursue new opportunities and contribute to the economy. Density in the urban and existing suburbs could drive down housing prices to the point where these workers can find a place to live.

It is also likely that zoning regulations create a significant impact on the economy overall. One research paper showed that zoning regulations may mean the economy is 14% than it would be otherwise if not for the constraints. They argue that constraints in highly productive cities like San Francisco and New York mean many workers who may otherwise live and work there opt not to due to the price of housing, restricting the size of the economy and the amount of growth. They attribute this to the development of housing restrictions through the late 20th century that restricts density.

So if there are so many benefits, how to we increase density in cities? There are many ways of approaching this. First, we have to change zoning laws that restrict density in cities. Second, incentives need to be created that encourage land owners to build up. In New York City for example, the city allows developers to build additional units in exchange for a public good like affordable housing or a public plaza. In less dense parts of the country, if we want landowners to increase density, a city might give a tax break to homeowners that add density on their property that can also give them revenue in the form of rent. Restricting sprawl by creating an urban growth boundary is another technique for reducing sprawl. It essentially creates a boundary around the metropolitan area where development is limited to within the defined boundary. Such a system exists in Portland today. However, one would need to be matched with increased density to allow for growth.

By whatever means we achieve it, increased density is an imperative. Our population and economy continue to grow, and sprawling to the peripheries is simply unsustainable. The impacts on inequality, the economy, our environment, and our food sources are too great when we choose to sprawl. The good news is that planners and officials around the country are realizing this and are adapting their cities to respond. Transit oriented density is being developed in cities like Nashville, which proposed its first light rail line, and Minneapolis, where it’s two light rail lines have ridership that have defied expectations and have spurred dense development along them. The future looks a little tighter knit.


Works Cited

Hsieh, Chang-Tai, and Enrico Moretti. “Housing Constraints and Spatial Misallocation.” 2015, doi:10.3386/w21154.

Reeves, Richard V., and Dimitrios Halikias. “How Land Use Regulations Are Zoning out Low-Income Families.” Brookings, Brookings, 15 Aug. 2017,

Riebel, Phil. “The State Of North American Forests, And The Causes Of Deforestation.” Printing Impressions, 31 Oct. 2014,

Qureshi, Mona, and Robin King. “3 Ways Land-Use Planning and Zoning Can Increase Urban Density.” The City Fix, 18 Aug. 2015,

Shoag, Daniel, and Peter Ganong. “ Why Has Regional Income Convergence Declined?” Brookings, 4 Aug. 2016.


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