Is Urban Infill a Sustainable Solution to Development?

Urban infill may be a viable solution for cities seeking to build tighter communities by utilizing space to its fullest potential. Conscious implementation of developments on underutilized land may be an effective sustainable agent that reduces daily vehicular travel time and the resulting environmental byproducts.

The National League of Cities’ Sustainable Cities Institute defines urban infill as “new development that is sited on vacant or undeveloped land within an existing community, and that is enclosed by other types of development.” Benefits include removing eyesores and safety concerns, supporting populations required to attract certain amenities (parks, community services, retail), and increasing the supply of affordable homes. Risks include improper management by local governments, demolishing historic buildings, and displacing residents of homes.

An example of urban infill in development is the 2011 Specific Plan, the River District, in Sacramento, California where underutilized developments are being renovated to make space for a community that is accessible to homes, jobs, and retail sans vehicular travel.

The City of Sacramento defines a Specific Plan as, “a comprehensive planning and zoning document for a defined geographic region of the City. It implements the General Plan by providing a special set of development standards applied to a particular geographic area.”

The City of Sacramento states that the River District is 773 acres of land located north of downtown Sacramento along the American River. The land primarily consists of industrial and commercial development, but aspires to become a series of transit-oriented mixed-use neighborhoods connected by walkable pathways. Once completed the River District will include 8,144 dwelling units, 3.956 million square feet of office, 854,000 square feet of retail/wholesale, 1.463 million square feet light industrial, and 3,044 hotel units.

The Sacramento Business Journal reported that the affordable housing complex, Cannery Place, was the first project to be completed in the 65-acre mixed-use neighborhood, Township 9. The complex was designed by Kuchman Architects PC, broke ground in January 2013, and was completed on December 1, 2014. Cannery Place sits one block from a light rail station and is easily accessible to the 33-mile long American River bike trail. Cannery Place seems to offer a viable housing option for those working in downtown Sacramento and unable to afford the current housing options.

The Strategic Growth Council (SGC) has identified urban infill as an important strategy for achieving the greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets of Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32).

As stated in AB 32, “The California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006”, GHG’s are defined as Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), Nitrous oxide (N2O), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). AB 32 required the Air Resources Board (ARB) to oversee GHG emissions compliance in California and approve a statewide GHG emissions limit equivalent to levels in 1990 to be achieved by 2020.

According to the ARB, carbon dioxide is the most prevalent GHG emitted in California, accounting for 84% of the total GHG emissions in 2014. Transportation (42%) is the largest source of carbon dioxide, which is primarily comprised of vehicular travel. The next largest contributors of carbon dioxide are industrial (23%) and in-state electricity generation (14%). In California, urban infill appears to speak to this GHG emissions data as an important contributor to GHG reductions.

Urban infill appears to acknowledge a desire for municipalities to transition towards more compact city layouts, which allow citizens to access their daily destinations easily via sustainable modes of transportation. A powerful byproduct is the potential reduction in GHG emissions. As human society actively seeks out alternative development options it will be exciting to see what other advantageous byproducts are touched upon.

Matthew Pinsker is contributing author to this blog. He can be reached at or by email at

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