Urban sprawl has long been regarded as something to avoid, a notion that is seeing more and more small, unaffordable, inner-city dwellings being crammed into Australian city centres.

While the vast majority of Australian jobs remain in the city centres, the result of the expanding city landscape is that approximately three quarters of Australians drive to work.

The amount of people driving each day contributes in a large part to Australia’s harmful carbon emissions.

Australian city planners design increasingly compact cities with tightly controlled zones in an effort to be less detrimental to the environment, but new research out of Auckland suggests responsible, energy-producing urban sprawl might be a better option.

Professor Hugh Byrd of the University of Lincoln’s School of Architecture in England recently said urban sprawl doesn’t have to be as bad for the environment as everyone claims.

“This study challenges conventional thinking that suburbia is energy-inefficient, a belief that has become enshrined in architectural policy,” said Byrd. “In fact, our results reverse the argument for a compact city based on transport energy use, and completely change the current perception of urban sprawl.”

suburb aerial shot

Suburban Life

Byrd says if electric cars became the norm and all homes were fitted with solar panels, urban sprawl would no longer carry such negative connotations.

If Australian city planners arranged for electric car charging points and for solar panels to be fitted to every property, then environmentally damaging cities could be transformed.

Working with the University of Auckland and the New Zealand Energy Centre, the research Byrd and his colleagues conducted found that typical suburban detached houses have the potential to produce 10 times more power than skyscrapers or commercial buildings.

The results are based on a detailed cross-section of Auckland, which includes skyscrapers in the CBD and most residential homes sprawled across the surrounding countryside.

If solar panels were fitted to every suburban home, enough energy would be produced to power the household, generate surplus to add to the grid, and charge an electric vehicle.

“This research could have implications on the policies of both urban form and energy,” said Byrd. “Far from reacting by looking to re-build our cities, we need to embrace the dispersed suburban areas and smart new technologies that will enable us to power our cities in a cost-effective way, without relying on ever dwindling supplies of fossil fuels.”

urban sprawl

Melbourne’s urban sprawl

Byrd says a city with urban sprawl is more efficient when the main energy source is distributed generation of electricity by photovoltaic installations and the main mode of transport is electric vehicles. He admits city density is more efficient for internal combustion engine vehicles but stresses the importance of moving away from them as a mode of transport.

Though the advantages of his recommendations would be a reduction in carbon emissions and city pollution, Byrd admits the only way it would work would be obligatory solar panel fitting which could take some time and twisting of arms.

Besides the possibilities of energy production, urban sprawl and low density living does help the environment in some ways. Single family dwellings tend to stand on larger plots of land with more trees, shrubs and plants to absorb harmful pollutants. Dense urban dwellings do not have the space availability to have the same amount of beneficial plant life.