High density living worse for environment?

By Leith van Onselen

A new report has been released which argues that high-density living is less environmentally friendly than suburban living. From All Homes:

In a revelation that challenges the long-held assumption that it’s more efficient to reside in a vertical village than a horizontal one, the three-year US study shows that apartment dwellers consume more energy, spend more of their time travelling and use their cars more.

“The findings are a little surprising to us all,” says Dr Anthony Wood, executive director of the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), a research professor in the college of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, and co-author of the landmark report.

“We’ve all grown up thinking that urban density and verticality is a good thing but there has never been a study that has really looked at this in any detail; they’ve all been generic studies, based on large sets of generalised data. So we thought we should undertake a more focused study to prove it. And the results have been quite the opposite to those we thought we would find.”

The study, Downtown High-Rise vs Suburban Low-Rise Living, minutely examined the lifestyles, movements and energy bills and usage of 249 households living in high-rise towers in the city of Chicago. At the same time, it collected the equivalent data for 273 households residing in houses in the suburb of Oak Park, 11 kilometres from the CBD, and compared the two.

The outcomes, released on Tuesday at the annual international CTBUH conference this year being held in Australia, were staggering.

Downtown high-rise residents were found to consume 27 per cent more electricity and gas per person than the suburban residents, and on a square metre of space average, they consumed 4.6 per cent more.

Despite the fact that some of the energy use in high-rise was from the lifts in buildings and common lighting, pools and gyms, suburban homes have a far greater surface-to-volume area, with high ceilings, unattached walls and large roofs, and most of the houses in the study were large, wooden-framed and, on average, 98 years old.

In terms of embodied energy – the quantities and specifications of materials used in the construction of both types of housing – high-rise fared even worse. The project found that high-rise buildings required 49 per cent more embodied energy to construct per square metre, and a stunning 72 per cent more on a per person basis…

High-rise residents were also found to own more cars (0.6 cars per person as against 0.5 in the suburb) and travel longer distances in them, 9 per cent further per year…

On the plus side for city centre high-risers, they were discovered to use less water – 73 per cent of the water used in suburban households, they took fewer separate journeys a year (92 per cent of those taken in the suburbs), and they walked and cycled nearly three times more.

One factor that may have skewed the findings is that high-rise city residents were generally older than those in the suburbs with an average age of 51 compared to 31.8, and were wealthier.

Several years ago, the Australian Conservation Foundation released its Consumption Atlas, which similarly found that inner city residences were more polluting than outer suburban residences:

Inner cities are consumption hotspots

Urban living patterns offer many opportunities for efficiency and reduced environmental impacts, compared to more dispersed populations. For example, access to public transport, as well as shops and facilities within walking distance, help make inner city dwellers less car dependant.

Further, the prevalence of more compact housing such as apartments in urban centres could lead to lower per person electricity and heating costs.

Yet despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption. Even in the area of housing, the opportunities for relatively efficient, compact living appear to be overwhelmed by the energy and water demands of modern urban living, such as air conditioning, spa baths, down lighting and luxury electronics and appliances, as well as by a higher proportion of individuals living alone or in small households.

In each state and territory, the centre of the capital city is the area with the highest environmental impacts, followed by the inner suburban areas. Rural and regional areas tend to have noticeably lower levels of consumption.

These trends in are closely correlated with wealth. Higher incomes in the inner cities are associated with higher levels of consumption across the board.

As suggested above, both studies are likely to be skewed by the fact that inner city residents tend to have higher incomes, and that higher incomes tend to correlate with more consumption and worse environmental outcomes.

Nevertheless, the assumption that urban density necessarily delivers better environmental outcomes does need to be challenged. If done poorly – such as via the proliferation of poorly designed high rise dogboxes (as is the case in Melbourne) – then environmental outcomes are likely to be poor.

But the same can be said about many of the detached houses being built on the fringe, which tend to be built to the boundary, have no eaves, poor aspects, and little tree or grass cover (creating a heat island effect), thus also creating poor environmental outcomes.

Of course, Australia having some of the most expensive land costs in the world does not help the situation, since it encourages developers to cut costs on construction in order to maintain some semblance of affordability.

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Unconventional Economist


  1. is this actually because high density living is less resource and energy intensive, or more just bc people who live in the inner cities have more $$$ than the suburbs and thus live more extravagantly? in some ways i see this as making sense – it requires a lot of energy to pump water up skyscrapers and run elevators. either way even if this is just confounded research its really funny, and im going to quote this to all the smug inner-cityies who hate on us suburban and regional people for our alleged environmental impact.

    apparently in the late 70s, about fifteen years before i was born, bankstown was more expensive to live in than leichhardt. what were the inner cities of australia like back before the gentrification age? were they gritty?

    • …and, if you have a back yard you generally have less need to get in your car and travel to green spaces or simply to get the hell out of your dog-box

    • I can pretty much attest that my mega mortgage prevents me from going on the massively emitting 2-3 holidays a year that I used to do with a much more servicable apartment mortgage. And the stuff about driving to see your mates is true as well. You spend a lot more time in traffic (my honda got 16L/100km a tank once) and none of your mateswant to visit you due to parking so you head out to them more often than not. Tended to head out further away from the dog box on weekends too.

  2. TailorTrashMEMBER

    “Of course, Australia having some of the most expensive land costs in the world “………if I wasn’t reading that on a serious economics blog I would think it was from a month python sketch ………G’Day Bruce ,Bruce and Bruce ….This is Bruce and he’s in charge of the scarce land rationing …….its too silly for words …..

  3. Not that surprising and likely to get worse as the advantages of having a bit of roof space to generate power from sunlight increase and more people start using light weight electrically powered vehicles for short local trips.

    Much of the obsession with high rise #SardineSydney planning obsessions arise from the oil shock thinking of the 1970s which involved killing off car using suburbia as fast as possible.

    Stopping people driving around chewing up fossil fuels is much less of an issue if people are not using fossil fuels.

    And that leaves to one side that the developing world demonstrates that if petrol is expensive they will happily load the family on a motorbike as an alternative to cramming into skyboxes if they have the choice.

    Choice is what the issue comes down to and that is the one thing that the average town planner does not want the little people to have.

    • Good point on solar. I wonder if the calculations took that into account?

      The big thing for me is having access to a decent green space. As a family, we spend a ton of time in the garden and while we’re out there the house is basically on electrical shutdown (bar the refrigerator). It uses more water, but saves us electricity and also eliminates a lot of trips needed to access the services that the garden provides. Trampoline, swings and sandpit for the kids, veggie patch, BBQ, shed / workshop, etc. Also, no need for an electric clothes drier.

      Humans need SPACE, we’re free-range chooks, not battery chooks.

      • Yep
        Horses for courses.
        The idea that a family must live in a shoe box in Australia is just demented.

        If they want to so they are close to a latte that is up to them but extorting them to do so with artificial land scarcity is just nonsense.

  4. Not just urban fringe that has dog boxes either. The inner city “in fill” geeks are happy that blocks are chopped up into small lots so tin cans can be built. No trees no shrubs no nothing. Ugly sh?t buildings.

  5. No no no
    Ask the dimwit yesterday who claimed the pacific islanders need to undertake family planning coz there’s lots of them (subsisting on f$ck all).
    It’s not us that’s the problem at all
    iPhones to the moon

  6. This is surprising why? The urban heat-island effect plus the noise and smell of a city means people keep their windows closed and their aircons on.

  7. This is not statisically relevant. The suburb used to compare to the city is a wealthy liberal one with excellent transport in both buses and trains. Its got lovely tree lined streets, gracious homes and an average income of $80k. A quick google search turns up reviews saying that its easy to access the city by driving too.

    Apparently the only downside to living in Oak Park is that you can’t get a decent taco there.

    I’d like to see this study done in ten major cities and four different suburbs in each city. Then it might be more relevant. This study is merely fodder for suburb developers and their marketing departments.

      • Notice that the findings Leith is discussing, are “buried” in the body of the report itself, according to its Abstract, it was a study of “life satisfaction”, and found that the tower block dwellers were slightly more satisfied with their lives than the suburban residents.

    • The really big crony capitalist money distorting policy, is in the direction of compact cities and containment and building “up”.

      Actual developers and constructors have to compete with each other and their profits are similar whether the land is cheap or expensive (in fact their business is higher-risk when sites cost them a whole lot more). But imagine who is interested in land being inflated in price everywhere in a city, by 2000% or more in one cycle; and guess why some of the richest property investors in the world – George Soros, the Rockefellers, etc lavishly fund activism for “restraining sprawl”.

  8. “Downtown high-rise residents were found to consume 27 per cent more electricity and gas per person than the suburban residents, and on a square metre of space average, they consumed 4.6 per cent more.”

    So when controlled for floor area, the result may not be statistically significant?

    • No – if you read the ACTUAL study (incorrectly linked above) it says

      “on a per-person basis, downtown high-rise living accounts for approximately 246 GJ of primary OE per person per year, which was approximately 61% higher than suburban low-rise living (153 GJ per person per year).”

      It’s per person that matters

  9. And bad for psychology too apparently:

    a) evolutionary psychologists Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Norman Li of Singapore Management University found that people who live in more densely populated areas tend to report less satisfaction with their life overall. The higher the population density of the immediate environment, the less happy they are (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/18/why-smart-people-are-better-off-with-fewer-friends/?utm_term=.e9d10e1edf2b); and

    b) studies suggest that growing up in a city doubles the chances of someone developing schizophrenia, and increases the risk for depression and anxiety (https://academic.oup.com/schizophreniabulletin/article/42/6/1372/2399413/Why-Are-Children-in-Urban-Neighborhoods-at).

  10. Come speak to me about my carbon footprint once the Chinese stop building a new coal fired power plant every week.

    • Andrew,
      The carbon footprint of the average Australian is about four times bigger than the average Chinese
      living in China. Reasons for this are;
      1. They have NUCLEAR POWER. Nuclear plants produce NO CO2 and actually emit less radiation
      than a coal fired plant.
      2. The Chinese are less likely to jump in a car and drive themselves to work many K’s from home.

      Even though solar and wind power are being developed more and more here, we are still one of the countries that are most dependant on coal fired power for electricity.