3.5 Land Use

Sustainable Washington

3.5 Land Use

Value of Land Use as a Means to Address Climate Change

The creation of dense mixed-use centers is now understood to be the centerpiece for achieving long-term climate action goals.  Cities and suburbs have grown rapidly in the age of cheap oil and now consume 75% of the world’s energy and produce 80% of the world’s greenhouse gases.[1] Cities also represent the greatest opportunity to reduce emissions through a wide variety of measures addressed throughout this document. This section focuses on smart growth - land use planning that supports walkability and the use of transit, encourages infill and reuse, protects natural resources and open space, and fosters community resilience.

Washington State’s Growth Management Act (GMA) already enables, but does not require, local governments to promote concentrated city and town centers.  New State mandated GHG and VMT reduction goals add to the importance of GMA requirements for making land use and transportation connections.  In this context, the creation of dense mixed-use centers is now understood to be a central feature for achieving long-term climate action goals. Reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) that are needed to reach State-mandated goals will not be achieved without focusing a substantial amount of growth in city and town centers. 

Studies surveyed by the Urban Land Institute for their 2008 publication, Growing Cooler, show that much of the expected rise in vehicle emissions can be curbed by growing in a way that will make it easier for Americans to drive less. In fact, the weight of the evidence shows that, with more compact development, people drive 20 to 40 percent less, at minimal or reduced cost, while reaping other fiscal and health benefits. [2] Cities – both large and small – will benefit from the creation of compact activity centers where people can live, work, shop and play without the need for a car trip for each activity. Dense areas better support transit and enhance the viability of carpools and vanpools by focusing origins and destinations.  (The commonly used measure of transit-supportive densities is at least 7 to 8 units/gross acre net housing density to support local transit service with 10-20 units per acre closer to transit stations [3].)


The following list of actions is separated into three categories: Getting Started, Making a Commitment, and Expanding the Commitment. This categorical approach allows jurisdictions to implement measures that are appropriate to their community’s current level of involvement in climate change and sustainability issues and in consideration of locally adopted plans, codes, regulations, policies and goals.

LU-1 Promote Compact and Transit-Oriented Development in Local Plans and Policies

In most metropolitan areas, the cost of housing declines with distance from job centers and other desired destinations, while the cost of transportation increases. Planners can influence the greenhouse gas impacts of long commutes by supporting the provision of mixed-income housing located within or near employment and in activity centers where dependence on vehicle trips can be reduced. (State, Regional and Local Action)

Getting Started

3.5.1 Add VMT reduction policies to county and regional plans.

Require that GHG/VMT reduction goals be added to countywide planning policies and regional transportation plans (RTP) and that RTPs identify how land use policy, regulations, and multi-modal transportation networks will encourage fewer vehicle trips and support walking, biking, car sharing, and transit use. (State Action)

3.5.2 Evaluate your local transportation system.

The first step for local planners to understand how to mitigate the impact of transportation-related GHG emissions is to learn how the local system functions.  What percentage of auto-trips are single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) commutes?  What are the barriers to increased transit and carpool/vanpool use?  Where are parks, schools, jobs, and shopping located in relation to both new and existing housing stock? Evaluate what is needed to allow local residents access to schools, jobs, shops, services, and recreation. (Regional, Local Action)

3.5.3 Educate your community on the benefits of compact communities. 

Citizens may have negative views on higher density and mixed-used communities.  As a result, attempts to increase density may be met with stiff neighborhood resistance.  The best way to counter this resistance may be to showcase the benefits of compact, mixed-use communities.  There are many books, articles, and aids available to help make the case, such as: ULI’s Growing Cooler (cited below)  and The Option of Urbanism, Christopher Leinberger.  (Regional and Local Action)

3.5.4 Designate compact development areas.

Designate local and regional areas planned for compact development and transit-oriented development. The process should include meeting with local developers, landowners, builders and architects to enlist their help in revising outdated rules to encourage the kinds of development and redevelopment envisioned in plans. (Local, Regional and State Action)

Burien’s new Town Center offers residential and commercial space near transit

3.5.5 Apply best practices for compact & transit-oriented developments.

Learn from business, housing, transit, and other related stakeholders about best practices; apply these lessons to siting and providing incentives for mixed-income housing near employment and/or transit centers. (Local Action)

Making a Commitment

3.5.6 Provide incentives for planned activity centers.

Offer incentives that will attract development to planned activity centers, such as: 1) zone for desired uses in activity centers as a use-by-right, avoiding discretionary approval processes; 2) use SEPA exemption processes (RCW43.21C.229) for residential and mixed-use development within activity centers; 3) streamline the permit review process for development that contributes to the evolution of identified activity centers and corridors between them. (Local Action)

3.5.7 Target funds to planned activity centers/corridors.

Designate regional “priority funding areas” where local governments have planned for compact development. Some areas may currently be without transit, but have short- and long- term goals for the evolution of focused growth areas that will support a range of multi-modal travel over time. Use infrastructure improvement and housing funds in activity centers and corridors where use of a car can be a choice and not a necessity.   Prioritize transit accessibility and/or climate change criteria when allocating housing assistance funds.  (Federal, State, Regional and Local Action)

3.5.8 Amend regulations to support smart growth.

Amend local regulations – including zoning and subdivision ordinances, parking standards, annexation rules, adequate public facilities requirements, and design guidelines – to facilitate smart growth through normal approval processes. (Local Action)

3.5.9 Streamline SEPA review.

Streamline the process for compact development in desired locations through the use of updated critical area ordinances, impact fee programs, and other regulatory tools that effectively limit the need for expanded SEPA review. (Local Action)

3.5.10 Require affordable housing.

Condition approval of large-scale residential and/or commercial developments on the provision of housing affordable to those earning a variety of incomes. Adopt inclusionary housing requirements in local zoning codes. (Local Action)

Expanding the Commitment

3.5.11 Re-evaluate land use patterns and tools.

Consider new planning and zoning tools, such as form-based or hybrid zoning schemes that more directly implement smart-growth objectives rather than traditional Euclidian-based zoning. Re-evaluate traditional separation of uses into distinct use areas, and encourage more opportunities for mixed-use development on both a neighborhood and area-wide scale.  Use processes and designs that encourage public interaction in neighborhoods.  Consider the example of the City of Portland support for grassroots efforts such as the City Repair project. http://cityrepair.org/ (Local Action)

Seattle’s Downtown Zoning ordinance provides incentives for LEED buildings with higher density.

3.5.12 Plan for density and mobility.

Local land use plans should include minimum residential densities and shopping and service need locations where they can support and be supported by residences. “Big” solutions such as mass transit and more efficient vehicles are expensive and will not solve GHG and climate change problems without also providing more ways for people to avoid trips or reduce the length of their trips. (Local Action)

3.5.13 Manage parking levels.

Require parking management goals and policies in Regional Transportation Plans, set regional maximum parking standards, and require parking management within activity centers where transit and pedestrian and bike infrastructure will support use of alternative travel modes.  Charging the true cost of parking will encourage fewer trips and allow higher density land uses that encourage walking. (See Donald Shoup’s book or article, The High Cost of Free Parking, at http://www.uctc.net/papers/351.pdf (Regional and Local Action).

SEPA Planned Actions

SEPA allows the use of a “planned action” approach to reduce the level of environmental review for projects that are located in areas that have previously been subject to a programmatic EIS. Vancouver’s Esther Short Park redevelopment is an example of a planned action. Burien and Seattle have adopted these processes.

SEPA Planned Actions

SEPA allows the use of a “planned action” approach to reduce the level of environmental review for projects that are located in areas that have previously been subject to a programmatic EIS. Vancouver’s Esther Short Park redevelopment is an example of a planned action. Burien and Seattle have adopted these processes.

3.5.14 Actively promote focused development.

Actively promote development in planned activity centers/corridors through a range of tools, including: 1) incentives (e.g., aggregate land to facilitate development in planned activity centers; establish carbon credits for retrofits or development in these centers) and 2) disincentives (e.g., create and implement a regional CO2 emissions impact fee to internalize carbon impacts into development costs, thereby rewarding best development practices and raising the price of carbon-inefficient development). Use fee revenues to help fund transit, bicycling facilities, sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities, and similar projects in compact areas.  Require mixed-income housing into such centers. (State, Regional and Local Action)

3.5.15 Establish TDR programs.

Establish local and regional transfer of development rights (TDR) programs enabling rural landowners to sell their development rights to urban developers through a market-based system. Consider infill areas as well as new master planned communities that may have more flexibility as major receiving areas.  Effectively crafted, TDR programs can help reduce VMT by directing growth to compact, transit-served areas and away from low-density greenfield sites.  Regional TDR programs can encompass more rural and urban areas, thereby providing greater market opportunities for TDR transfers.  (Local and Regional Action)

LU-2 Promote Urban Infill and Reuse of Existing Buildings, Neighborhoods and Districts

Existing structures represent large stores of embedded energy – energy used to create and assemble building materials such as concrete and steel. Where feasible, avoid the environmental costs of demolition and new construction, which can outweigh – or take a long time to recapture – the carbon emissions in new construction.  A 2008 study from the British Empty Home Agency compares carbon dioxide emissions in new construction with the refurbishment of existing homes. The study concludes that when embodied CO2 is taken into account, new, energy-efficient homes recover the carbon expended in construction only after 35-50 years of energy efficient operations.[4] Since the climate change crisis requires immediate action to reduce global warming gases, reuse and retrofits of existing buildings offer a more cost-effective and environmentally responsible way of reducing carbon emissions in the short term than demolition and new construction.  (Local Action)

Getting Started

3.5.16 Promote protection of historic buildings

Protect historic buildings by conducting inventories and evaluating older buildings to determine if they would meet national or local criteria for historic registers, and establish policies and ordinances for protection of historic buildings and districts. Review local codes to determine if energy-efficient refurbishing conflicts with historic preservation objectives, and consider revising these codes to protect historic resources while improving the energy profiles of preserved buildings. (Local Action)

3.5.17 Encourage refurbishing older buildings.

Develop programs to provide financial assistance to owners for rehabilitation of historic buildings, refurbishing and repurposing older buildings, and retrofitting buildings for increased weatherization and energy efficiency. (Local Action)

3.5.18 Promote adaptation and infill over greenfield development.

Establish the reuse, relocation, and recycling of buildings as a strategy for addressing global warming in a local climate action plan (see Tacoma’s Climate Action Plan as one example[6] ) Evaluate existing buildings within areas planned for redevelopment to identify buildings that are functionally effective and can be adapted to new uses; create incentive programs that foster infill in existing districts over new development on greenfield sites; and establish impact fees that encompass the true costs of extending infrastructure to greenfield sites. (Local Action)

Expanding the Commitment

3.5.19 Create ordinances to discourage demolition and encourage reuse.

Establish ordinances requiring developers who demolish buildings and rebuild new structures to meet additional, more stringent requirements. For example,San Francisco’s Green Building ordinance requires owner’s who demolish an existing building earn 10 percent more LEED credits on the new buildings than would normally be required. (See San Francisco’s Green Building ordinance for an example.[5]) Provide additional credits for deconstruction and reuse of salvaged building materials.  (Local Action)

3.5.20 Support deconstruction instead of demolition

When renovating buildings for reuse or relocating existing buildings is not feasible, barriers to deconstruction should be eliminated -such as requirements that building remain in place until permits for replacement structures are granted.  This practice compresses the time available for thoughtful deconstruction.  A major obstacle to deconstruction and salvage is the high cost of labor.  Partner with Community Colleges to develop training programs, as part of construction management curriculums, in techniques for deconstruction and reuse of salvaged materials. (Local Action)

3.5.21 Revise ordinances to address greenhouse gas reductions.

Rewrite local zoning and subdivision ordinances to provide incentives for greenhouse gas reductions using a sliding scale of achievement levels, as shown in the Sustainable Community Development Code prepared by Clarion Associates and the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute.[7] (Local Action)

LU-3  Strategically Locate Public Facilities

Local governments have significant influence over the siting of schools, community centers, and parks which – depending on form and location – can be major trip generators.  Avoid siting facilities where pedestrian, bike, and public transit use is difficult or impossible in order to reduce the number of vehicle trips generated.   (Local Action)

Getting Started

3.5.22 Establish siting policies.

Incorporate policies into local and regional comprehensive plans that encourage accessibility to public facilities by multiple modes of transportation.  (Regional and Local Action)
Making a Commitment

3.5.23 Evaluate public facility sites based on climate change issues.

Evaluate whether the siting of existing public facilities advances or impedes climate change mitigation objectives.   Develop a long-term public facilities plan that is integrated with and guided by policies for mitigating climate change.  (Local Action)
Expanding the Commitment

3.524  Prioritize funding.

Prioritize funding for public facilities using climate change criteria, such as the amount of greenhouse gas emissions expected to be attributable to a particular facility.  (State and Local Action)

3.5.25 Foster development with public investment. 

Washington law makes it difficult to use public dollars directly as redevelopment “seed money.”   One way around this barrier is to make investments in major public facilities in a way that leverages private investment, including joint public-private partnerships, shared parking agreements, etc. (Regional and Local Action)

LU-4 Establish standards for SEPA review of plans and major projects for carbon emissions

Federal courts have determined that CO2 is a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and EPA is in the process of developing guidelines.  Currently the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) requires consideration of air and water quality impacts, which inherently include climate change issues.  This arena is rapidly changing, but it is becoming increasingly clear that GHG emissions should be evaluated in SEPA and NEPA reviews.  See examples by King County and Seattle for addressing GHG in SEPA reviews. (Federal, State, Regional and Local)

Getting Started

3.5.26 Assess public facilities.

Assess jurisdictions’ public facilities carbon emissions and energy consumption, as well as equipment purchases that factor into climate changes and budget considerations.  Create and implement a plan to reduce emissions and energy consumption for the jurisdictions’ operations and development.  (Local Action)

Making a Commitment

3.5.27 Evaluate climate change impacts of land use alternatives.

Use land use planning environmental reviews to systematically analyze the impacts on climate change issues of land use alternatives.  While environmental impact disclosure only advises public decision making, knowingly adding to adverse climate change impacts in long-range land use plans will bring into question traditional development regulations that ignore these consequences.  (Regional and Local Action)

Expanding the Commitment


3.5.28 Levy carbon taxes or fees.

Using the emerging science of measuring carbon emissions, levy a carbon emissions tax or impact fee to address global warming concerns and emission reduction goals.  (State and Local Action)


1 Caroline Ash, et al., “Reimagining Cities”, Science, special issue 319, no. 5864 (February 8, 2008): 739; as quoted in Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, and Heather Boyer, Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change, Island Press, 2009.

2 Reid Ewing, Keith Bartholomew, Steve Winkelman, Jerry Walters and Don Chen, Growing Cooler: Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change Executive Summary (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Land Institute, 2008), http://www.1kfriends.org/documents/Growing_Cooler_Executive_Summary.pdf (accessed Sept. 1, 2008) Cooler, pg. 4.

3 PSRC, Vision 2040, Page 83

4 Building and Social Housing Foundation and Empty Homes Agency, New Tricks with Old Bricks (London, U.K.) Empty Homes Agency, http://www.emptyhomes.com/documents/publications/reports/New%20Tricks%20With%20Old%20Bricks%20-%20final%2012-03-081.pdf. 2008.

5 San Francisco 2008 Green Building Ordinance, (2008): http://www.sfenvironment.org/downloads/library/sf_green_building_ordinance_2008.pdf.

6 Green Ribbon Climate Action Task Force, Tacoma's Climate Action Plan (Tacoma, WA: City of Tacoma,[2008]), http://www.cityoftacoma.org/Page.aspx?nid=674.

7Sustainable Community Development Code, http://law.du.edu/index.php/rmlui/programs/sustainable-community-development-code/sustainable-community-development-code-beta-version-12.

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