Report | 2023

Urban Land Use Reform

The Missing Key to Climate Action Strategies for Lowering Emissions, Increasing Housing Supply, and Conserving Land

By Ben HollandZack SubinDuncan KayBryn GrunwaldShelby KuenzliJane MarshRushad NanavattyJulia ThayneJackson TomchekBrian YudkinAnna Zetkulic
Download the report below

For over a century, discriminatory land use and housing policies in the United States have segregated neighborhoods and engineered entire cities around single-family homes and personally owned automobiles. These policies have led to a chronic housing shortage, numerous harms for disadvantaged communities, and sprawling development patterns that exacerbate climate change and ecological harm.

These policies have also led to more and more driving as we live farther away from one another and our workplaces, grocery stores, schools, and green spaces. This has caused transportation to become the single largest carbon-emitting sector in the United States. To meet our global climate goals, we need to reduce transportation emissions by 45 percent by 2030. This requires both putting 70 million electric vehicles on the road and reducing how many miles we drive (also known as vehicle miles traveled) by 20 percent per capita over the next seven years.

In this report, RMI analyzes the potential for land use reforms to achieve significant emissions reductions, focusing on three fast-growing US metropolitan areas: Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Denver, Colorado. Land use reforms can reduce emissions by:

  • Shortening distances between housing and people‚Äôs daily needs;
  • Reducing building energy use and water consumption by allowing attached and multifamily housing types, as well as integrating them with denser commercial buildings in compact urban forms; and
  • Curbing sprawl and preserving land to serve other needs and functions such as farming, forestry, wilderness conservation, and carbon sequestration.

This RMI analysis found that land use reforms can reduce vehicle miles traveled by up to 13 percent, building energy use by up to 16 percent, and local greenhouse gas emissions by up to 14 percent averaged across these metropolitan regions, relative to business-as-usual patterns of development.

The suggested land use reforms modeled in this report include measures such as upzoning (removing restrictions on multifamily housing), urban infill (building more housing on underutilized land parcels), and transit-oriented development (building taller residential buildings and commercial clusters close to high-quality transit). Changing outdated, car-centric, and exclusionary urban land use policies will bring far-reaching economic, social, and environmental benefits. It represents a missing and often overlooked key to addressing the intersecting housing, cost-of-living, and environmental crises. We cannot afford to wait to change how we develop our cities.

For more information on our methodology for this report, please contact Ben Holland at bholland@rmi.org.