Serious concerns with accelerating global warming have been translated into urgent calls for increasing urban densities: higher densities are associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions, especially those related to vehicle kilometers traveled (VKT). In order to densify meaningfully in the coming decades, cities need to make room within their existing footprints to accommodate more people. In the absence of adequate room within their existing footprints, cities create more room through outward expansion, typically resulting in lower overall densities. We introduce a quantitative dimension to this process, focusing on the population added to a global stratified sample of 200 cities between 1990 and 2014. In three-quarters of the cities we studied, the areas built before 1990 gained population and thus densified significantly. On average, however, only one-quarter of the total population added to the 200 cities in the sample in the 1990–2014 period were accommodated within their 1990 urban footprints, while three-quarters were accommodated within their newly built expansion areas. That resulted in an overall decline in average urban densities during the 1990–2014 period despite the near-global, decades-old and rarely questioned consensus that urban expansion must be contained.
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