by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders

Land use is essential to climate action. We need diverse, compact communities where people can meet their daily needs without a car. We need to preserve our farms, forests, and wetlands, as well as maximize their ability to sequester carbon. We need to secure the energy embodied in older buildings, safeguard our water, restore biodiversity, and adapt to the growing threat from wildfires, floods, and sea level rise. By accomplishing any one of these goals, we often receive many other benefits in addition to the mitigation of greenhouse gases and adaptation to the growing threats of climate change.  

Drawdown, the 2017 study that quantified the carbon-reducing capabilities of 100 strategies, found that roughly one third of its total estimated greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions could be achieved by combining strategies involving compact urban development, planet-friendly food/fiber/biomass production, plus the conservation of forests and wetlands. Several other studies reach comparable conclusions about the importance of preservation to climate action.

Traditional preservation tools require taxation, which is not a popular topic in most communities. In contrast, a market-driven mechanism known as transfer of development rights (TDR) uses private sector profits rather than public money to motivate the voluntary redirection of development potential into cities and away from the natural areas and farmland needed for carbon sequestration and local food production. In TDR programs, developers of sites that are appropriate for growth are granted a more lucrative form of development in return for compensating the owners for preserving properties that should not be developed because they are potential carbon sinks and/or because they are vulnerable to coastal storms, wildfires, and other hazards exacerbated by climate change. Furthermore, when communities themselves preserve resource properties, they can sell the resulting TDRs and use the proceeds to preserve more resources, thereby converting what would otherwise be a one-time expenditure into a perpetual revolving fund for conservation.

My just-published book, Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights, argues that counties, cities, towns, and villages should seriously consider using TDR for climate action. Non-governmental organizations as well as national and state level agencies agree, including the American Planning Association, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the California Coastal Commission, and the South Florida Regional Planning Council. 

Smart Climate Action offers extensive case studies explaining how TDR can be used and has been used to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by promoting compact urban form, maintaining the embodied energy within historic buildings, and preserving carbon-sequestering forests, farmlands, and wetlands. Other case studies demonstrate how existing TDR programs have helped communities adapt to climate change impacts including sea level rise, wildfires, biodiversity loss, and threats to water resources. In addition to TDR superstars like Montgomery County, Maryland, King County, Washington, and the New Jersey Pinelands, Smart Climate Action includes profiles of various lengths for a total of 282 TDR programs in the US.

Because land use actions are synergistic, an individual TDR program typically provides more than one form of climate action. For example, by preserving a majority of its 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve using TDR, Montgomery County, Maryland, created a greenbelt that fosters compact, energy-efficient communities, preserves its countryside for the protection of watersheds, wildlife, and outdoor recreation, as well as secures a place where restorative agriculture can sequester carbon while providing a source of locally-produced food.

Some skeptics claim that TDR only works in communities with ideal preconditions. Smart Climate Action argues that ten success factors can be used to fit TDR programs to local circumstances, making successful outcomes achievable in communities with a wide range of sizes, locations, and socio-economic characteristics. The book explains these success factors using dozens of existing TDR programs as illustrations.  

More about TDR can be found at at and Smart Climate Action through Transfer of Development Rights is available at

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.