Rethinking our Landscape: The Crucial Link between Land Use and Climate Change in the Capitol Region

When it comes to tackling climate change, we often overlook a crucial component: the way we use our land. It is not just about the carbon emissions from factories and vehicles; it is also about the very ground beneath our feet. Let’s dive into the less discussed realm of land use patterns and their significant impact on emissions output in the Capitol Region.

The Unseen Connection Between Land Use and Climate Change

There is a misconception that high-density development is unsustainable, but in reality, most dense communities tend to have lower carbon emissions. Sprawling communities lacking adequate public transportation or walkable destinations are a primary driver of emissions. As we press forward in our efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions, communities across Connecticut and the nation must make sustainable land use practices a priority.

The prevalence of low-density development in the Capitol Region has fostered a dependence on personal automobiles, the largest culprits of transportation emissions. In Connecticut, the transportation sector is the single largest contributor, accounting for a staggering 40% of all emissions. Cars, despite their convenience, emit more GHG emissions per passenger mile compared to alternative modes of transportation such as buses, light rail, or bicycles. With the rise of the personal automobile, many of our local zoning codes and land-use policies also began to perpetuate sprawling, car-centric development patterns – less mixed-use and higher density residential areas in favor of detached single-family homes on larger lots. This type of development is less-energy efficient requiring a car for everyday errands and homes with higher energy demands, utility costs, and increased emissions. These are all things we can change by embracing policies that foster walkable communities, reduce driving dependency, and minimize energy consumption.

Unveiling the Carbon Footprint of the Capitol Region

The University of California-Berkely Climate Data Modeluses national household energy, transportation, and consumer expenditures surveys along with local census, weather and other data– 37 variables in total – to approximate greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the energy, transportation, food, goods and services consumed by average households in essentially all populated U.S. zip codes. According to the Climate Data Model, household income, vehicle ownership, and home size are strongly related to carbon emissions. Unsurprisingly, these factors tend to be higher in suburban areas. Averaging between 37,305,361-42,866,192 grams CO2e per household, the Capitol Region’s emissions trend towards the mid-range. In our region, total GHG emissions dispersed in suburban neighborhoods exceed those in urban core or more compact suburbs. Cities like Hartford and New Britain, and suburbs with more compact development, such as Manchester, display lower emissions ranging from 21,264,982 to 37,035,788 grams of CO2e per household. Even Mansfield, which is primarily rural, has lower emissions largely due to the walkability of the University of Connecticut campus. In contrast, more dispersed suburban and rural towns reach 69,604,466 grams CO2e per household; indicating the potential benefits of more compact living. The map below illustrates these household emissions at the census tract level, illustrating the positive impacts of compact built environments on GHG emissions.


A Greener Path Forward

Here are some actionable strategies we can take to transform our landscape and make a positive impact on climate change:

  • Support Compact and Walkable Development: Communities should prioritize development that minimizes the need to drive and reduces energy consumption. Focusing on compact, infill development also helps preserve agricultural and open space land.
  • Zoning Reform: State and local governments can enact zoning changes that incentivize sustainable transportation options. By providing more options beyond large lot single-family homes, reducing or removing parking requirements, and strategically locating and allowing greater density and a mix of land uses, municipalities can create more walkable communities.
  • Climate-Focused Procurement Reforms: Local governments spend millions annually on direct purchases for their essential operations. We should collectively take stock of what our money purchases for these operations and whether there are viable alternatives that are less carbon intensive. This can be as simple as no longer purchasing single-use plastics such as water bottles for public meetings to more comprehensive reforms, such as directing government procurement spending towards sustainable projects to build a marketplace sustainable product.
  • Embrace New Technology: Transitioning to all-electric appliances in our homes can further reduce emissions associated with natural gas. The Inflation Reduction Act includes several tax credits to incentivize the purchase of electric stoves, water heaters, heat pumps and more.
  • Safe-Street Policies: Many people want the option of walking or biking to their destinations. Our communities need to rethink our road infrastructure to prioritize a safer environment for pedestrians and cyclists. Protected bike lanes, prioritized crosswalks, investment in our transit stops, and shaded sidewalks encourage the use of eco-friendly modes of transportation.

Municipalities face challenges in outlining detailed strategies for climate plans, from fiscal constraints to technical and programmatic limitations. Collaboration at the regional level can help overcome these barriers, ensuring successful implementation. Sustainable development demands clearer benchmarks, identifying funding for climate action plans, and embracing regional entities for scalable, sustainable land-use plans. Currently, the Capitol Region COG (CRCOG) and Lower Connecticut River Valley COG (RiverCOG) have partnered together in the U.S. EPA’s Climate Pollution Reduction Grant (CPRG) program. Together, they are developing the Greater Hartford Climate Action Plan, which includes a Priority Climate Action Plan (PCAP) and a Comprehensive Climate Action Plan (CCAP). The PCAP and CCAP identify measures to mitigate GHG emissions and air pollution, emphasizing implementation of actions with measurable GHG reduction and benefits to low-income and disadvantaged communities.

Creating more walkable and sustainable communities can be a challenging and incremental process, but by fostering collaboration between regional and local governments, and implementing forward-thinking policies, we can create communities that minimize driving, reduce energy consumption, and contribute to a more resilient and environmentally conscious Capitol Region. The choices we make today about the landscapes we inhabit shape the future of our climate. It is time to create a greener path moving forward.

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