07/02/2022

Urban Containment: The Social and Economic Consequences of Limiting Housing and Travel Options

Responding to a growing interest in curtailing carbon emissions, some cities are limiting their urban footprint—a practice called “urban containment.” Urban containment policy seeks to control “urban sprawl” and to reduce GHG emissions by densifying urban areas and substituting transit, cycling and walking for car and other light duty vehicle use. This study evaluates four urban containment reports—by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Transportation Research Board (Driving and the Built Environment), the Urban Land Institute (Moving Cooler) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—to determine their cost-effectiveness in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and their impact on household affluence and the poverty rate.

Urban Containment and Cities

Cities have experienced declining population densities for centuries. This occurred as urban areas expanded at a greater rate than population, due in large measure to improved transportation technologies, as walking was substantially replaced by transit and later, transit was substantially replaced by cars. Even in the densest parts of urban areas—the core municipalities—population densities have declined virtually around the world.
The physical expansion of cities, known as “urban sprawl,” has been a principal concern of urban planners for decades, which has led to the adoption of “urban containment.” The most important urban containment policies are restrictions on urban fringe development— by means of urban growth boundaries or similar land-rationing measures—and policies to reduce light duty vehicle use.

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