Global Scenarios of Urban Density and Its Impacts on Building Energy Use through 2050

A scenario-based study provides a global analysis of future urban densities and their implications for building energy use.

The Science

This study uses innovative methods to understand how urban form impacts urban energy use and the quality of life for urban residents. The research provides a global-scale analysis of future urban densities and associated energy use in the built environment under different urbanization scenarios.

The Impact

Researchers, including scientists from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, demonstrated how the spatial configuration of urban areas affects energy use, which provides significant implications for global sustainability. The research demonstrates innovative methods for combining top-down and bottom-up analysis regarding urban form and incorporates these into long-term scenarios. The study helps to increase our understanding of the linkages between local- and global-scale energy dynamics.


Although the scale of impending urbanization is well-acknowledged, we have a limited understanding of how urban forms (i.e., the physical layout, spaces, and structures that make up an urban settlement) will change and what their impact will be on building energy use. This innovative study makes an important methodological contribution by using both top-down and bottom-up approaches and scenarios to explore the implications of urban form globally on a range of dimensions, including energy consumption both regionally and globally. In the scenarios in the study, energy use for heating and cooling by the middle of the century increased 5-40% over 2010 levels. Most of this variability is due to the uncertainty in future urban densities of rapidly growing cities in Asia and particularly China. Dense urban development leads to less urban energy use overall. The study also suggests that retrofits to the existing built environment that take place after markets are ready to widely deploy the most advanced renovation technologies could lead to more savings in building energy use than retrofits deployed today. With growing urban extents and urban populations, the work suggests that urban form is as or more important for energy use than increasing energy efficiency in developing regions.

Principal Investigator(s)

Leon Clarke
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


Y.Z., S.Y., and P.L.P. were supported by the Integrated Assessment Research Program in the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. X.L. was supported by the International Postdoctoral Exchange Fellowship Program (2013), the Office of China Postdoctoral Council, and NASA Grant. K.C.S. and B.G. were both supported by NASA Grants.


B. Güneralpa, Y Zhou, D Ürge-Vorsatz, M Gupta, S Yu, P Patel, M Fragkias, Xiaoma Li, and Karen C. Seto, “Global Scenarios of Urban Density and Its Impacts on Building Energy Use through 2050.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, early edition. (2017) [DOI:10.1073/pnas.1606035114].