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Between 1982 and 1997 the U.S. population grew by about 17 percent. During the same period, the amount of land consumed for urban development increased by 47 percent. Americans continue to spread themselves more thinly across the landscape. The results of these individual locational decisions are quantifiable by increased infrastructure costs to serve spread-out development, and by the increased amount of energy needed for transportation, community services, and buildings.
Reasonable people can disagree about the degree to which sprawl has been facilitated by the automobile, but it is clear that automobile travel has increased substantially over the past decades, far outpacing population growth. In fact, from 1980 to 1997, vehicle miles traveled (VMT, in traffic engineer jargon) grew by 63 percent, nearly three times the rate of population growth. The U.S. EPA reports that more than 60 percent of the increase in VMT has been due to an increasingly dispersed, low-density pattern of land development and "the fact that jobs and housing have become increasingly segregated from one another."
Geographer Susan Owens, in her book Energy Planning and Urban Form, similarly notes that "the single most important factor affecting the relationship of urban form and transport energy requirements is the physical separation of activities, determined by both density and the interspersion of land uses."
In other words, how densely we build, and the degree to which land uses are intermixed (so energy costs can be reduced), determines what our communities look like and how much energy they use. Energy costs are reduced when land uses are sited more compactly. Energy is also lost in transmission, so the longer the distance energy has to travel, the more expensive its true cost. In most parts of the country, however, utilities charge the "average unit price," meaning customers pay the same price per unit of power regardless of the true cost of their service, thereby subsidizing dispersed development.
How we design and build new developments also has major energy impacts. There are many aspects of a development’s design that can help reduce energy consumption, often by enabling less auto use.
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... Article continues with examples of what several communities have done to promote energy conservation. The article also includes sidebars on energy efficient outdoor lighting; the impact of urban heat islands; how to get started with a community effort focused on energy conservation; and ways of achieving energy independence.
Also included in the download: two short perspectives on peak oil production & its land use implications by environmentalist Bill McKibben and Dave Room of the Post Carbon Institute.