The environmental planning literature proposes a set of 'best management practices' for urban development that assumes improvement in environmental quality as a result of specific urban patterns. These best management practices, however, often do not recognise finite biophysical limits and social impacts that urban patterns alone cannot overcome. To shed light on this debate, we explore the effects of different degrees of urban clustering on groundwater levels using a coupled land-use change and groundwater-flow model. Our simulations show that specific urban forms only slow down the impact on groundwater. As population increases, the pattern in which it is accommodated ceases to matter, and widespread depletion ensues. These results are predictable, yet current planning practice tends to take growth for granted and is reluctant to envision either no-growth scenarios or the prospect of depletion. We propose to use simulations such as those presented here to aid in policy discussions that allow decision makers to question the assumption of sustainable growth and suggest alternative forms of development.