Is High-density Development Sustainable Urban Form? A Footprint Study of Transportation in Vietnam, New Zealand and Finland

By Han Thuc Tran, Brenda Vale, Robert Vale and Eva Pongracz.

Published by The International Journal of Environmental Sustainability

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: February 23, 2017 $US5.00

Many cities have changed from the time their boundaries were defined by walking distance to cycling distance, then extended to the tram era, and since have sprawled from access to private vehicles. The environmental impact of transport is significant. There have been many debates on how to reduce the environmental impacts of travelling. Usually, common suggestions are increasing urban density, reducing travel distance to walkable and cyclable distances, and using more public transport and electric vehicles. However, there is growing evidence that it is still unclear how urban form and density can be associated with travel distance. Bearing in mind that few people can afford to buy electric cars and it would take a very long time to replace existing cars using fossil fuels, the question is what are the alternative options in the transition to more sustainable urban transport? Hence, this paper explores what forms the largest part of individual transport footprints in terms of domestic travel and the reasons why. Using ecological footprint measurements, this paper will examine the environmental impact of domestic travel in three very different cities: Hanoi in Vietnam, Wellington in New Zealand, and Oulu in Finland. This will be done by assessing the ecological footprint of fuel use, embodied energy of vehicles, and the infrastructure in the three cities. This investigation of the transport footprint reveals that people in all three cities still travel about the same distance regardless of differences in urban densities as well as urban forms. Instead, what differs is their choice of travel mode. This has led to significant differences in the individual transport footprint results for the three cities. The individual transport footprint of Hanoi is much smaller than those of Wellington and Oulu, although the travel distances are similar. This paper argues that the mode of travel is what should be the focus in order to reduce the transport footprint, and high-density settlement is meaningless if travel still largely depends on the car. It also argues that in the future of sustainability, people do not necessarily have to reduce their travel distance within the city, rather they need to make smarter travel choices. Furthermore, the paper compares the ecological footprint of transport in low-density and high-density settlements in these case studies to demonstrate that high-density development would tend to increase fuel consumption due to urban driving patterns. Finally, the paper examines the land area needed to replace transport fossil fuel by renewable energy in Finland to show that having high density settlements could limit opportunities to grow food and develop renewable energy.

Keywords: Sustainable Urban Form, Ecological Footprint, Urban Density, Travel Patterns, Behavioral Change, Renewable Energy

The International Journal of Environmental Sustainability, Volume 13, Issue 1, March 2017, pp.53-67. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: February 23, 2017 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 727.333KB)).

Dr. Han Thuc Tran

Postdoctoral Researcher, Energy and Environmental Engineering, Faculty of Technology, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland

Prof. Brenda Vale

Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

Prof. Robert Vale

Professor, School of Architecture and Design, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand

Eva Pongracz

Professor, Energy and Environmental Engineering, Faculty of Technology, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland