Recent Study: Suburban Sprawl Cancels Carbon Footprint Savings of Dense Urban Cores

January 9, 2014

Lessons learned in history relate directly to  lessons learned from everyday experiences. People developed and moved to the suburbs because more space was needed to start and expand families and because they wanted fresh air away from the industrial working environments that the cities provided.

Today, it seems to take us longer to learn lessons. We need more evidence and more trends before we take full advantage of what is already present plus we want the best of both worlds. We, as a society, want to live a healthier, greener lifestyle, but we also believe we should have space to sprawl outward.

What will be the final push to condensing our lives back to an urban scale but in a suburban setting?

Perhaps the answer is in a study recently released by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, entitled, Suburban Sprawl Cancels Carbon Footprint Savings of Dense Urban Cores. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the California Air Resources Board.

The main point of the article, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, is that emissions from city’s suburbs (mostly Carbon Dioxide from vehicles) makes up 50 percent of household emissions in the United States but they make up less than half the population.

The study used 37 variables ‘to approximate greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the energy, transportation, food, goods and services consumed by U.S. households.’

A useful tool to show what each city’s impact on the environment is the interactive carbon footprint maps found at

“The goal of the project is to help cities better understand the primary drivers of household carbon footprints in each location,” said Daniel Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy in the Energy and Resources Group and the Goldman School of Public Policy, and director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. “We hope cities will use this information to begin to create highly tailored, community-scale climate action plans.”

“Metropolitan areas look like carbon footprint hurricanes, with dark green, low-carbon urban cores surrounded by red, high-carbon suburbs,” said Christopher Jones, a doctoral student working with Kammen in the Energy and Resources Group. “Unfortunately, while the most populous metropolitan areas tend to have the lowest carbon footprint centers, they also tend to have the most extensive high carbon footprint suburbs.”

“A number of cities nationwide have developed exceptionally interesting and thoughtful sustainability plans, many of them very innovative,” Kammen said. “The challenge, however, is to reduce overall emissions. Chris and I wanted to determine analytically and present in a visually striking way the impacts and interactions of our energy, transportation, land use, shopping, and other choices. Cities are not islands: they exist in a complex landscape that we need to understand better both theoretically and empirically.”

The solution that the authors have come up with is truly unique and hopefully is what pushes cities forward. They say suburbs can become the new example of how places can be. The authors argue, ‘Cities need to step out of traditional roles in planning urban infrastructure and learn how to better understand the needs of residents in order to craft policies and programs that enable the adoption of energy and carbon-efficient technologies and practices.’

Perhaps suburbs can become the newest trend… once again…

“Suburbs are excellent candidates for a combination of solar photovoltaic systems, electric vehicles and energy-efficient technologies,” said Kammen. “When you package low carbon technologies together you find real financial savings and big social and environmental benefits.”





Jennifer Shockley

Jennifer is originally from Colorado and has recently moved back from Michigan. She is finishing up her Master’s degree in Architecture. She is currently focusing on urban planning and sustainable design and hopes to gain employment at a design firm specializing in these areas. Jennifer also has writing experience serving as an editor for her school newspaper and college magazine. Jennifer has two cats named Prada and Dior-aptly named after her shoe obsession. You can follow Jennifer on twitter @jenshock81.