Population Growth: To Build Up, or to Build Out

Population Growth

According to a Pew Research Center population report, world population is expected to exceed 9.5 billion people by 2050. This presents global and local challenges. On the local level, for urban centers, there’s a need for food, water, housing, schools, jobs, thriving businesses, and other infrastructure to support more people.

At present levels, we’re already at the brink of overburdening our natural resources. In the Southwest United States, California and other areas around the world, water scarcity is a more pressing problem than any other. Every city and region has their own set of concerns and priorities.

For the Iowa City area and Johnson County, a growing population requires thoughtful planning that will meet current and future needs. Those concerned about quality of life and sustainable initiatives, look to New Urbanism and walkable communities for planning strategies.

There are two common approaches to development: (1) to build out, or (2) to build up.

Building Out (Sprawl)

Building out means that we convert existing rural and agricultural lands to suburbs by zoning them as residential. To some degree, these rural areas serve as wilderness habitats, so this approach can have a negative environmental impact. Building out is generally accompanied by more roads, more traffic, more pollution, and longer commute times.

Suburbs typically have large single family homes. Furnishing these homes, maintaining them, and caring for their yards promotes materialism and has a negative impact on the environment.

People need cars to drive from suburbia and bedroom communities to shopping malls, business districts, or industrial parks. This means lots of cars, and vast areas of land paved over for parking lots.

“Suburbs were able to develop because of cheap oil and cheap land, but our dwindling natural resources will not be able to sustain the heavy demands of suburbia.” National Public Radio, The End of Suburbia As We Know It?, 19 June 2008

Building Up (New Urbanism)

Rather than building out with sprawl, building up generally means building multi-story structures, but the term has grown to mean more than that. New Urbanism has as it’s goal the creation of vibrant walkable communities. We hear about areas getting ‘built up’ which can mean taller buildings, or revitalization through better use of existing spaces.

Urban infill, pocket neighborhoods, and construction of multi-use high-rise self-contained villages are ways of building up and developing neighborhoods.

Learn More

Below are some videos that explore this topic further.

Jeff Speck: The walkable city (TED Talks)

How do we solve the problem of the suburbs? Urbanist Jeff Speck shows how we can free ourselves from dependence on the car — which he calls “a gas-belching, time-wasting, life-threatening prosthetic device” — by making our cities more walkable and more pleasant for more people.


Walkable Cities by Janette Sadik Khan (New Urbanism) NYC

“The work of a transport commissioner isn’t just about stop signs and traffic signals,” explains Janette Sadik-Khan, who was appointed to that role in New York City in 2007. In this funny and thought-provoking talk, she details the thinking behind successful initiatives to reshape street life in the 5 boroughs, including the addition of pedestrian zones in Times Square and the arrival of Citi Bikes. Watch for the special cameo at the end of the talk.


Walkable Cities by Kent Larson (New Urbanism)

How can we fit more people into cities without overcrowding? Kent Larson shows off folding cars, quick-change apartments and other innovations that could make the city of the future work a lot like a small village of the past.


Converted Shopping Mall


Page Visitors

We’ve been sharing this article through our various social networks and it seems to be gaining in popularity. The map below shows recent visits to this page. Click for a larger gallery view.

Greenwood Avenue Cottages

Below is a photo of the Greenwood Avenue Cottages, a pocket neighborhood, courtesy of Ross Chapin and The Cottage Company.

Photo: RossChapin.com

Photo: RossChapin.com — Greenwood Avenue Cottages

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2 responses to “Population Growth: To Build Up, or to Build Out

  1. I’m actually considering becoming a city planner. I liked this post, and it makes sense that new urbanism helps with a growing population where there isn’t enough room to fit people. These were great videos, and I just wanted to say thanks for posting!

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