The Patterns of a Conservation Economy
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View of Portland from Vista Bridge.
Image by Debra Sohm.

Compact Towns And Cities

As cities and towns sprawl into the countryside, it becomes more expensive and less equitable to provide services to outlying suburbs. Congestion increases, farmland is lost, and the stability of surrounding rural areas is threatened. The livability of both city and countryside is greatly diminished.

As the Congress for the New Urbanism has argued, coherent urban regions are a fundamental social, economic, and ecological unit. Such regions are naturally bounded by topography, watersheds, greenbelts, and surrounding farmland and wildlands. They contain compact cities, towns, and villages held within a connected matrix of agricultural lands, forests, and open spaces. Each city, town, or village is woven from well-differentiated Human-Scale Neighborhoods and centers, and is bounded by clearly defined edges. Green Building techniques greatly reduce use of water, energy, and materials.

The advantages of compactness are significant: more efficient and less expensive infrastructure, utilities, and public services; more effective public transit; pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use neighborhoods; and better integrated regional economies. Compact cities, towns, and villages ease development pressures on forests and farms, helping to stabilize rural communities and maintain wildlands. Recent studies demonstrate that states with land-use laws favoring compact development patterns, including Oregon, lose farmland much less rapidly than states without such laws.

Urban Growth Boundaries help prevent development patterns from blurring or leapfrogging beyond the edges of a town, city, or metropolitan region. Infill development and new building that complement and heal existing centers and neighborhoods offer significant ecological, social, and economic advantages. In many cases, increasing density in a neighborhood creates a better palette of shopping, working, and transit choices. Gracefully integrating increased density requires the utmost respect of historical precedents and neighborhood character. Metropolitan regions can help direct regional growth patterns, and should create appropriate strategies to encourage infill development rather than sprawl. Large-scale new development, when necessary, should either extend organically from existing urban boundaries or be organized as new towns with their own urban edges. In all cases, vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods with a gradient of densities from park to commercial center form the basic building blocks of towns and cities.

Throughout the region, a local balance of jobs and housing, including a diversity of housing types and costs should be maintained. Diverse Local Economies that offer opportunities for people of all income levels help to avoid concentrated pockets of poverty.

Historically, regional imbalances between where tax revenues are raised and where they are spent have emerged. Careful statistical analysis and mapping has demonstrated the dramatic extent of these imbalances, and the manifold ways in which they undermine Social Equity.

In particular, core urban areas and inner-ring suburbs typically have a high tax base (with high density offsetting lower average income) and the greatest needs for schools and other services. These areas are often splintered by transportation projects that do not benefit neighborhood residents, and face an unfair burden of pollution and contamination. Despite this, local governments typically spend a disproportionate amount on outer-ring suburbs, whose low density leads to expensive and inefficient services and infrastructure.

Regional approaches to tax revenue address issues of social equity by ensuring that taxes and fees are fairly assessed by towns, cities, and counties, and that the revenues raised are fairly shared. This requires careful coordination, which is best addressed by a layer of regional government like Portland's Metro. In addition, explicit formulas for the true costs and benefits of new development, transportation projects, utilities, schools, policing, and other services must be worked out and agreed to on a regional basis. Minneapolis, Minnesota has pioneered the effective use of regional tax revenue sharing strategies, with promising results to date.

The organization of the metropolitan region into well-defined neighborhood centers translates into an effective physical framework for many different transportation modes: pedestrian, bike, bus, and light rail or commuter rail. With strong alternatives in place, dependence on automobiles and their attendant infrastructure of parking areas, roads, and highways decreases, which in turn frees more space for infill development and improves the effectiveness of the transit system. As the groundbreaking Land-Use, Transportation, Air Quality Connection (LUTRAQ) study for Portland demonstrated, increased density accommodated near transit nodes can actually decrease vehicle miles traveled.

Cities and towns can also make use of Ecological Infrastructure, enhancing existing urban Ecosystem Services like water purification and flood control rather than degrading them at enormous cost. In addition, effective Rural-Urban Linkages help to maintain both the livability of the city and the economic vitality of the countryside.

Metropolitan Regions should have towns and cities with well-defined edges and vibrant neighborhoods. They should be set in a matrix of open space, agricultural and forest land, and wildlife corridors extending outward to regional wildlands networks. Towns and cities should make use of efficient, ecological infrastructure, offer a range of transportation connections, and offer a mix and distribution of land-uses that supports diverse regional economies.

Examples of this pattern in action:

Since its inception in 1991, the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments has initiated several projects that aim to demonstrate what our neighbourhoods and communities could be like if they were designed and built to conform with emerging local, provincial, and federal policies for sustainable development. Through a series of design charrettes and workshops, the Chair has sought to reveal, then resolve, the often competing imperatives of sustainable development policy.

Cities Feeding People
A community enjoys food security when all people, at all times, have access to nutritious, safe, personally acceptable and culturally appropriate foods, produced in ways that are environmentally sound and socially just. A combination of hunger in Canadian society, continued degradation and loss of agricultural lands, limited economic viability of small and medium sized farms and a general dissatisfaction with the food system in general has propelled community organizations to action. Excerpt taken from "Urban Agriculture and Food Security Initiatives in Canada: A Survey of Canadian Non-Governmental Organizations" by Jacinda Fairholm.

Organizations whose work incorporate this pattern:

Congress for New Urbanism

Patrick Condon

Smart Growth BC


Congress for the New Urbanism. Charter of the New Urbanism. McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing. New York, NY. 1999.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Modern Library. New York, NY. 1993.

Krieger, Alex, ed. Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk: Towns and Town-Making Principles. Rizzoli. New York, NY. 1991.

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Pattern Index

A Conservation Economy

Social Capital

Fundamental Needs

Subsistence Rights

Shelter For All


Access To Knowledge


Social Equity


Cultural Diversity

Cultural Preservation

Sense Of Place

Beauty And Play

Just Transitions

Civic Society

Natural Capital

Ecological Land-Use

Connected Wildlands

Core Reserves

Wildlife Corridors

Buffer Zones

Productive Rural Areas

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Fisheries


Compact Towns And Cities

Human-Scale Neighborhoods

Green Building

Transit Access

Ecological Infrastructure

Urban Growth Boundaries

Ecosystem Services

Watershed Services

Soil Services

Climate Services


Economic Capital

Household Economies

Green Business

Long-Term Profitability

Community Benefit

Green Procurement

Renewable Energy

Sustainable Materials Cycles

Resource Efficiency

Waste As Resource

Product As Service

Local Economies

Value-Added Production

Rural-Urban Linkages

Local Assets

Bioregional Economies

Fair Trade

True Cost Pricing

Product Labeling