Posted May 2006

Growth and development expand communities’ opportunities by bringing in new residents, businesses, and investments. Growth can give a community the resources to revitalize a downtown, refurbish a main street, build new schools, and develop vibrant places to live, work, shop, and play. However, with the benefits come challenges. The environmental impacts of development can make it more difficult for communities to protect their natural resources. Where and how communities accommodate growth has a profound impact on the quality of their streams, rivers, lakes, and beaches. Development that uses land efficiently and protects undisturbed natural lands allows a community to grow and still protect its water resources.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the U.S. population will grow by 50 million people, or approximately 18 percent, between 2000 and 2020. Many communities are asking where and how they can accommodate this growth while maintaining and improving their water resources. Some communities have interpreted water-quality research to mean that low-density development will best protect water resources. However, some water-quality experts argue that this strategy can backfire and actually harm water resources. Higher-density development, they believe, may be a better way to protect water resources. This study intends to help guide communities through this debate to better understand the impacts of high- and low-density development on water resources.

To more fully explore this issue, EPA modeled three scenarios of different densities at three scales—one-acre level, lot level, and watershed level—and at three different time series build-out examples to examine the premise that lower-density development is always better for water quality. EPA examined storm water runoff from different development densities to determine the comparative difference between scenarios. This analysis demonstrated that:

  • The higher-density scenarios generate less stormwater runoff per house at all scales—one acre, lot, and watershed—and time series build-out examples;
  • For the same amount of development, higher-density development produces less runoff and less impervious cover than low- density development; and
  • For a given amount of growth, lower-density development impacts more of the watershed.

Taken together, these findings indicate that low-density development may not always be the preferred strategy for protecting water resources. Higher densities may better protect water quality—especially at the lot and watershed levels. To accommodate the same number of houses, denser developments consume less land than lower-density developments. Consuming less land means creating less impervious cover in the watershed. EPA believes that increasing development densities is one strategy communities can use to minimize regional water quality impacts. To fully protect water resources, communities need to employ a wide range of land-use strategies, based on local factors, including building a range of development densities, incorporating adequate open space, preserving critical ecological and buffer areas, and minimizing land disturbance.

For a free hard copy of this publication, please email ncepimal@one.net or call (800) 490-9198.

An electronic version of this publication is available at www.epa.gov/smartgrowth.

Membership in the Smart Growth Network is now free!  Get resources, tools, success stories, and much more. To join, go to http://www.smartgrowth.org/sgn/join.asp