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High rise vs urban sprawl, which is more sustainable?

An American study has found high-rise development is more sustainable than urban sprawl, but far more needs to be done to further reduce high-density housing’s environmental footprint.

The Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) recently released their pilot study on urban sustainability, comparing 522 lifestyles across various urban and suburban settings.

Their findings support a consensus that urban sprawl is more taxing on resources like materials and energy, but the disparity may be even more pronounced than previously believed.

They found suburban development required a staggering 833 per cent more infrastructure network length than downtown high-rises, drawing on resources and consuming energy.

“The industry generally believes that urban density and verticality is a good thing, but there has never been a study that has looked at this in such granular detail. Most studies to date have been largely generic, based on large sets of generalised data,” study co-author and CTBUH Executive Director, Dr Antony Wood said.

“So we thought we should undertake a more focused study to investigate. And the results have been far more nuanced than what we expected to find.”

While many of the findings support the assumption that dense cities are more environmentally friendly than dispersed suburbs, the data also shows that more needs to be done to make downtown living a sustainable solution for the ongoing urbanisation of the planet.

The study notes, on a per-person basis, high-rise residents consumed 27 per cent more energy than low-rise residents – largely due to the high-rise residents being older “empty nesters” with less people per household.

The energy required to maintain shared facilities such as swimming pools, fitness rooms, and recreation areas in the high-rise was also a factor.

“With more than a million people moving into cities around the world each year, it’s always been assumed that it’s much more sustainable for them to move into high-rise towers than into suburbia,” researcher and co-author Dr Peng Du said.

“But this study has shown that it’s not enough to make a blanket assumption that increased density is automatically more sustainable. We need to put more work into understanding how high-rise residents are living, and how their buildings work.”

The data was gathered from 249 household participants spanning four residential towers in downtown Chicago, and from 273 low-rise homes in nearby suburban Oak Park.

The focus involved obtaining actual home energy and water bills, tracking transport movements by all travel modes, calculating infrastructure length, public open space and investigating residents’ satisfaction with life and a sense of community.

The reseachers note, as the birthplace of the skyscraper, Chicago was uniquely positioned for a study exploring density versus sprawl. The city, like many in the US, has been experiencing a densification of its downtown at the same time that its suburbs continue to grow outward.

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