Study: Low-Rise Density Is Better for the Climate

New research analyzing carbon emissions throughout the life cycle of buildings shows that high-rises create more carbon emissions than dense, low-rise developments.

Read Time: 1 minute

November 9, 2021, 12:00 PM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


An image of the Raleigh skyline, with older residential buildings in the foreground and taller commercial buildings in the background.

Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

Researchers Ruth Saint and Francesco Pomponi shares news of their new study asserting that dense, low-rise buildings are better for the environment than high-rises. Despite their ability to drastically increase density in urban areas, high-rise buildings, according to the study, create more carbon emissions down the line. This is largely due to what Saint calls "embodied" carbon emissions, "all the hidden, behind-the-scenes carbon produced during the extraction, production, transport and manufacture of raw materials used to construct a building, plus any produced during maintenance, refurbishment, demolition or replacement." This overlooked aspect of a development's overall carbon footprint, experts argue, must be emphasized in order to reduce emissions in cities.

Our findings show that high-density low-rise cities, such as Paris, are more environmentally friendly than high-density high-rise cities, such as New York. Looking at the fixed population scenarios, when moving from a high-density low-rise to a high-density high-rise urban environment, the average increase in whole life-cycle carbon emissions is 142%.

With countries targeting aggressive emissions reduction goals, Saint argues that urban planners and developers must use this knowledge to advance more sustainable building practices that reduce the carbon footprint of cities while continuing to accommodate growing urban populations. 

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