Ecocity Snapshots

Climate Action Through Land Use

Land use reforms helped make Copenhagen one of the most sustainable, walkable, bikeable, and livable cities in the world.
Written by Rick Pruetz

by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

Land use reform can achieve more climate action results than switching half of all cars in the US to electric vehicles (EV) by 2035. That statement will not surprise those who are aware of the Ecocity Standards, which promote compact urban form and diverse, multi-use neighborhoods as a sound foundation for sustainable communities.

A 2024 study of land use reforms at the state level reconfirms the power of building cities in which people can reach schools, shopping, entertainment, and other everyday destinations without needing a car. And as demonstrated by the Ecocity Standards, land use reform delivers many more co-benefits than switching to EVs including affordable housing, walkable neighborhoods, plus the conservation of natural and working land (NWL) that provides local food security, enhances biodiversity, and reduces human exposure to wildfire and other dangers exacerbated by climate change.

The 2024 study in question is ‘Why State Land Use Reform Should Be a Priority Climate Change Lever’, prepared by RMI. These land use reforms include deregulating and pricing parking, ending exclusionary zoning, eliminating land-wasting regulations, streamlining permitting processes, and revisiting all development rules that potentially create housing deficits, unaffordable housing, and sprawl.

RMI estimates state-level land use reforms could produce a 70-million-ton reduction in carbon equivalents. Reduced VMT (vehicle miles traveled) would accomplish roughly half of that improvement. Less vehicle manufacturing and oil extraction/transportation would account for another third. The remaining savings would be derived from greater energy efficiency in building construction and from retaining more NWL capable of sequestering carbon.  

Previous work by RMI indicates that VMT in the US would have to be reduced by 20 percent in order to reach climate action targets even if our EV fleet increased from today’s 2.4 million to 70 million EVs by 2030. The 2024 study shows how sprawl-related impacts can be reduced from business-as-usual projections on a state-by-state basis with the largest reductions in pollution estimated in states with the highest populations, the most driving, and the greatest need for additional housing such as Texas, California, and Florida.

The RMI study reports that sprawl causes one third of GHG pollution around the world by lengthening VMT, increasing car dependency, increasing embedded carbon in the built environment, forcing inefficient use of land and building materials while eliminating natural carbon sinks. Previous issues of Ecocities Emerging have stated that compact urban form, by itself, can cut resource and energy use in half according to a report prepared by the International Resource Panel (IRP) for the United Nations Environment Program entitled The Weight of Cities: Resource Requirements for Future Urbanization. When combined in an integrated, mutually-reinforcing manner with three other levers (livable, functionally and socially mixed neighborhoods; resource-efficient buildings and infrastructure; and sustainable human behaviors), compact urban form can decrease resource use by 80 to 90 percent when compared with the resource consumption levels associated with current business-as-usual practices.

RMI advocates for land use reform at the state level even though land use regulations have traditionally been the province of local government. The thinking is that reform at the local level is more vulnerable to defeat by NIMBYism. However, land use reform at the state level is no walk in the park either. Presumably, average citizens will see the need to accept reform as the climate crises becomes too big to ignore.  


IRP (International Resource Panel). 2018. The Weight of Cities: Resource Requirements of Future Cities. Paris: United Nations Environment Programme.

Korn, Jacob et. al. 2024. Why State Land Use Reform Should Be a Priority Climate Change Lever. Accessed at Why State Land Use Reform Should Be a Priority Climate Lever for America – RMI.

Pruetz. 2021. Ecocities and the Power of Greenspace. Ecocities Emerging, Accessed at Ecocities and the Power of Greenspace – Ecocities Emerging

About the author

Rick Pruetz

Rick Pruetz, FAICP, is Vice President of the Ecocity Builders Board and an urban planner who writes about sustainability, most recently Ecocity Snapshots: Learning from Europe’s Greenest Places and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights.