As cities get crowded, development moves out to the fringes and beyond. Agricultural land gets bulldozed for houses, shopping centers and schools. New, expensive infrastructure is installed, and public services are created for a handful of residents. Most of the people who live there commute back into the city to work. This is not a sustainable model at all. This is the suburbs.
The answer to sprawl is infill. Vacant, undesirable urban lots and brownfields need to be developed as single-family homes, commercial zones and mixed use to cut down on sprawl and the CO2 emissions it creates.
Infill brings vibrant neighborhoods back to the city. It eliminates unsafe and unsightly lots, which lower property values. Using existing infrastructure and services, as opposed to building all new, reduces costs. The investment has a faster payback time for a city, since more people are using the services.
Advantages of urban infill development
Developers can build affordable housing so the working class can have a home close to their jobs. Housing is also suitable for all generations across all cultures.
Density allows for walking, biking or taking public transportation to get around. Residents don’t need cars. Being able to walk, bike and just be outside improves their health. It also creates community. People know each other when they live closely together. Community centers and parks offer recreation and socialization for a neighborhood, which in turn offers a sense of safety for residents.
Infill is not just reusing vacant lots to create sustainable neighborhoods. It also includes renovating abandoned buildings, whether they are residential or commercial. Remodeling is more eco-friendly than building new. It uses existing infrastructure; a shell is already on site, and maybe it’s in pretty good shape and can use a light makeover. Other homes need major renovation, and others still can undergo a deep energy retrofit to make them efficient or even net zero.
Adaptive re-use in cities – sort of like upcycling
Adaptive reuse is the concept of taking old, abandoned buildings and turning them into something else, sort of like upcycling. An old warehouse can be remodeled into apartments. A supermarket can become a school. An old factory can be mixed use residential and retail. A key element of adaptive reuse is that historic features are retained to keep the flavor of the neighborhood intact.
By using recycled, locally sourced and sustainably harvested materials gives infill, renovation and adaptive reuse an even lower carbon footprint. Working with original structures reduces the need for new materials, which take much energy to produce and transport.
How does urban infill and urban renewal happen?
Developers must work with local government to identify potential infill sites. Non-profits, neighborhood organizations, city planners and lenders must work together to turn empty space into lively, sustainable neighborhoods. Planners need the numbers of high density to build services and public spaces. It makes economic sense to build for a larger population.
Infill will create jobs, increase property values and increase the tax base. It will help a city reach its emissions goals by eliminating the need for commuters. The shared walls of dense apartment buildings are more energy efficient, reducing a city’s emissions again.
As the world’s population increases, we need to be careful how we use our land. We could save precious agricultural land by developing vacant lots and buildings into safe, comfortable and walkable urban communities.