Types of Sustainable Development Patterns

The following section describes four closely-related development patterns that can be used to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Click on the links below to learn more about:

• Compact Development
• Transit-Oriented Development
• Infill Development
• Mixed-Use Development


Compact development

Compact development is an approach in which homes are developed at relatively higher densities. In communities where single-family homes are the norm, increasing the compactness of development can expand the supply of housing and provide families with additional housing options that might better fit their needs. Well-designed compact development also can support economic development and transportation goals by accommodating the population density needed to make such amenities as public transit and street-level retail economically viable.

Targeting development in existing communities instead of greenfields can prevent water pollution and excess runoff from the addition of new roadways and non-permeable surfaces. Well-designed compact development near other amenities can also improve air quality by reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMT).

Compact development is regulated by local zoning laws, which determine how many dwelling units are allowed per acre. Click here to read about how local governments can rezone low-density residential areas to allow higher-density development.

Concerns Regarding Compact Development

Some individuals oppose efforts to increase the compactness of development, arguing that it may decrease surrounding property values or increase crime or traffic. However, the available research suggests these concerns are generally misplaced. Click on one of the resources below for:

  • A review of research on the impacts of higher-density and affordable housing on nearby property values:


  • A summary of the benefits of higher-density development:




Transit-oriented development

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is a form of compact development built around existing or planned transit stops, hubs and corridors supporting light rail, train, or bus ridership. TOD works best when land-use and transportation policies are coordinated so that zoning changes or design guidelines are appropriate to encourage high-density development and a mix of land uses (residential, commercial, retail, civic) within close proximity to a station. Like all compact development, TOD densities should be flexible, based on the community context, mode of transportation, and ridership goals.

Residential development can make an important contribution in efforts to expand ridership for public transit. Studies have found that residential development within a 15-minute walk (a quarter-mile) radius of a public transit facility does more to boost ridership on a transit system than any other type of development, with benefits increasing as the density of residential development increases. The Urban Land Institute reports that a Canadian study determined that density around a bus corridor in the Victoria area became viable when homes were built with 15 units to the acre. When the average residential density increased to 30 units per acre on the same bus route, ridership on the system increased three-fold.

TOD and Affordability

The inclusion of a full range of housing choices within transit-oriented development provides working families and others with homes that offer low-cost options for getting to the workplace – an outcome that is especially important in an era of fluctuating gasoline prices.

Affordable transit-oriented development can help reduce both housing and transportation costs, improve job retention and stability by making it easier and cheaper to get to work, and reduce pressures for families to relocate to the periphery of metropolitan areas, which could increase sprawl and traffic congestion.  When well-designed transit-oriented development with a mix of homes, restaurants, shops, employment centers or other destinations is connected to a comprehensive system of sidewalks or bike lanes, automobile use can be reduced and bicycle and pedestrian travel facilitated. TOD can also significantly reduce rates of greenhouse gas.


Infill Development

Infill development focuses on developing underutilized or vacant properties within previously developed neighborhoods. Infill development is often conducted in conjunction with downtown revitalization strategies or the reuse of brownfields, creating significant community development benefits by reinvesting in areas that may have been neglected. Like the other development patterns discussed in this section, infill development can also contribute to energy and environmental objectives by helping families live closer to work, schools, and other places they frequent regularly.

Because infill development focuses on increasing residential living opportunities within areas that are already developed, it presents an alternative to development on the fringe of the community, which typically consumes open space and requires the energy-intensive construction of new roads and infrastructure. Additionally, when vacant properties or other sites near amenities are being utilized for infill development, travel distances from one point to another decrease, reducing vehicle miles traveled.

Infill development can also be important for increasing the tax base in urban areas without significantly increasing a municipality’s infrastructure and public service burdens.

At the same time, there are often costs and barriers to infill development that make it a difficult and expensive approach to pursue. In particular, it is much harder to achieve economies of scale with infill development than with greenfields development. In addition, separate zoning approvals generally need to be achieved for each relatively small site. Communities can help to mitigate these barriers by providing development subsidies and incentives and/or streamlining the permitting process for infill development. Some local governments also designate and rezone set districts for infill development as part of their long-range comprehensive plans.


Mixed-use development

Mixed-use development is the integration of different land-uses within a single area, most commonly regulated through zoning tools, such as overlay zones or planned unit development. These tools depart from typical Euclidean zoning patterns which separate land-uses from one another, thus enabling civic, commercial, and retail buildings to be located in close proximity to homes. These tools also make it easier to locate retail development and job sites near housing, potentially increasing business revenues by providing residential population density nearby. When located near transit, mixed–use neighborhoods can increase ridership on regional systems, facilitate pedestrian activity, encourage the linking of trips and shorten trip distance between uses.

Mixed-used development can facilitate mixed-income communities by providing for a range of different housing types within a single community. Mixed-use development can be structured on an individual building scale (traditionally as ground floor retail, commercial or office space with residential units above), on a neighborhood scale through a mix of residential, retail and/or commercial buildings in close proximity to one another and/or through development of live-work spaces that combine studio or office space and living space in a single unit.

Aside from zoning, a number of alternative regulatory tools can be used to encourage mixed-use developments in targeted areas. One approach is form-based codes, which focus on regulating the building type, location of parking, site layout, and overall design of the public realm (street, neighborhood, etc), rather than the nature of the permitted land uses. By de-emphasizing land-use type, form-based codes enable buildings to provide a mix of uses, which can change over time.

Once adopted, form-based codes are accompanied by illustrations of appropriate types of development and densities within an area based on its surroundings, creating design guidelines to be used during the development process.