Downtown High-Rise vs. Suburban Low-Rise Living

A Pilot Study on Urban Sustainability

There is an ongoing need to optimize construction materials and reduce the size of elements required within the structural systems of high-rise buildings. Minimizing the size of the vertical structural elements, without compromising the economic feasibility of projects, is a persistent challenge of tall building design. The use of composite structural elements, such as combining concrete and steel, along with higher grade materials within each, is a viable solution.

It is widely assumed that the “dense vertical city” is more sustainable than the “dispersed horizontal city.” This concept has certainly been a large factor in the unprecedented increase in the construction of tall buildings globally over the last few decades, especially in the developing world. The concentration of people in denser cities — sharing space, infrastructure, and facilities — is typically thought to offer much greater energy efficiency than the expanded horizontal city, which requires more land use, as well as a higher energy expenditure in infrastructure and mobility.

Though this belief in the sustainability benefits of ‘dense’ versus ‘dispersed’ living is driving the development of cities from Toronto to Tianjin and from Sau Paulo to Shanghai, the principle has rarely been examined at a detailed, quantitative level. Studies to date have been mostly based on large data sets of generalized data regarding whole-urban energy consumption, or large-scale transport patterns. Crucially, there are very few studies that also take into account a “quality of life” aspect to urban vs. suburban living, in addition to differences in energy use patterns.

Chicago, the city in which this research has taken place, is uniquely positioned for a study exploring density vs. sprawl from a sustainability point of view. The birthplace of the tall building and one of the main crucibles for experimentation in the typology in the century or more since then, Chicago also has an ever-growing suburban area that is typical of most US cities. And yet, again in line with many other cities around the world over the past decade or two, it has seen suburban growth alongside densification of its downtown area and a resurgence of people seeking high-rise urban living.

This research report offers a quantitative evaluation of long-held assumptions, and with sometimes surprising results. The ground-breaking study quantitatively investigates and compares the sustainability of people’s lifestyles in both urban and suburban areas from environmental and social perspectives, using detailed information directly collected from households and best available data from public resources. It fills significant research gaps in our knowledge of the sustainability of urban density compared to suburban sprawl. This is an indispensable resource for policy makers, developers, urban planners, architects, utilities, and anyone else with a stake in shaping the future of the built environment.

Principal Researchers / Authors: Peng Du & Antony Wood
Editorial Support: Jared Davis & Daniel Safarik
Layout: Jared Davis & Kristen Dobbins
Chicago, 2017
ISBN13: 978-0-939493-50-0
Soft cover, 152 pages, 8.5"W x 11"H

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