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State and Local Climate and Energy Program

Land Use Planning

Land Use and Climate Change

Land use planning plays a significant role in local government activities to both mitigate greenhouse gases (GHGs) and adapt to a changing climate. Many of the key strategies for coping with climate change are linked to land use planning:

  • Growth of vehicle-related GHG emissions are influenced by transportation infrastructure.
  • Compact development protects ecologically valuable open space and requires less energy and materials to build and operate.
  • Reducing GHG emissions from deforestation requires policies to protect woodlands and other valuable carbon sinks.
  • Land use planning is critical in enabling communities to adapt to sea level rise, more frequent extreme weather conditions, and other climate-related hazards.

“Smart growth” is a term that covers a range of development and conservation strategies that help protect the natural environment and make communities more attractive, economically stronger, and more socially diverse. Land use planning is an essential part of any smart growth strategy, and it is especially important when efforts to mitigate GHG emissions and adapt to climate change are needed.

Integration of Land Use Planning and GHG Mitigation Efforts

The most effective GHG mitigation measures take place in the context of a broader effort to systematically address some of the most prevalent sources of emissions. Smart growth strategies play an important role in reducing a community's GHG emissions:

  • If neighborhoods were designed to make walking, biking, and public transit safe and convenient, many car trips Americans make could be avoided.
  • Studies of residential developments have found that high-density development emits less than half as much GHG per capita as low-density development.

Governments wishing to integrate climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies into their land use planning activities have tools at their disposal:

  • Zoning and other land use laws can be used to encourage compact, mixed-use, walkable development.
  • Brownfield redevelopment activities can both preserve open space and minimize additional infrastructure costs.
  • Offering smarter transportation choices can be a cost-effective way to reduce emissions and minimize the costs associated with building additional roads.

Local governments are uniquely equipped to integrate climate strategies into land use planning. Foremost, they have jurisdiction over land use and have a special understanding of the spatial needs of the community. Local governments can integrate GHG mitigation strategies into land use planning by engaging the public and specific city departments to address multiple benefits, such as health and safety. Key departments that can support smart growth initiatives include:

  • Housing
  • Public health
  • Public works
  • School boards
  • Transportation

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Tools and Resources

Brownfield Development

Getting Started with Brownfields — Key Issues and Opportunities: What Communities Need to Know (PDF) (11 pp, 127K) Exit EPA disclaimer, published by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, provides important background and additional resources for developing brownfield sites.

GHG Reductions through Land Management

EPA's Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices (PDF) (98 pp, 1.6M) offers a perspective on opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through materials management (e.g., recycling and waste prevention) and land management (e.g., brownfield redevelopment, land restoration, and smart growth).

Growing Cooler

Growing Cooler is a study published in 2008 by the Urban Land Institute that examined the research on compact development, vehicle miles traveled, and carbon dioxide emissions to determine how more efficient development patterns could help reduce our impact on the climate. The study concluded that compact development could reduce vehicle miles traveled up to 20 to 40 percent compared to conventional development patterns. Based on the amount of development that will take place and the percentage of that development that could reasonably be expected to be compact infill, the study estimated that compact development could reduce CO2 emissions by 7 to 10 percent in 2050 if aggressive smart growth strategies are implemented.

Local Government Climate and Energy Strategy Series

The Local Government Climate and Energy Strategy Series provide a comprehensive, straightforward overview of local government greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction strategies. Staff can use these guides to plan, implement, and evaluate climate and energy projects. Each guide provides an overview of project benefits, policy mechanisms, investments, key stakeholders, and other implementation considerations. Examples and case studies are incorporated throughout the guides. Topics covered in the guides include energy efficiency, transportation, community planning and design, solid waste and materials management, and renewable energy.

Moving Cooler

Moving Cooler, a study commissioned by a variety of agencies and interest groups, reviews a range of transportation measures that would influence GHG emissions: reducing the amount of vehicle-miles traveled, reducing fuel consumption, and improving performance of the transportation system. Moving Cooler provides information on the effectiveness and costs of almost 50 transportation strategies, individually and in various combinations.

Schools for Successful Communities

Where and how schools are built will profoundly affect the communities they serve and the quality of their air and water. While a first-rate education in a safe facility must always be the primary consideration when making school spending decisions, a growing number of communities are using these investments to meet multiple goals -- educational, health, environmental, economic, social, and fiscal. Schools for Successful Communities explains why and how communities can employ smart growth planning principles to build schools that better serve and support students, staff, parents, and the entire community.

Smart Growth Zoning Code Fixes

Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Urban and Suburban Zoning Codes explores 11 solutions to the most common barriers local governments face in implementing smart growth. This document can help communities evaluate their existing codes and ordinances and take appropriate steps to create more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable communities.

Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities

In partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Rhode Island Sea Grant, and the International City/County Management Association, EPA has released Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities, a guide builds that offers 10 specific development guidelines for coastal and waterfront communities.

Smart Growth Implementation Toolkit

The toolkit Exit EPA disclaimer is a set of practical tools to help community leaders foster smarter development by evaluating local policies and regulations.

This Is Smart Growth

This Is Smart Growth, published by the Smart Growth Network and the International City/County Management Association, illustrates how communities can turn their visions, values, and aspirations into reality, using smart growth techniques to improve the quality of development. Examples from 40 locales across the country illustrate the range of successful smart growth options available.

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