Urbanization causes severe environmental degradation and continues to increase in scale and intensity around the world, but little is known about how we should design cities to minimize their ecological impact. With a sprawling style of urban development, low intensity impact is spread across a wide area, and with a compact form of development intense impact is concentrated over a small area; it remains unclear which of these development styles has a lower overall ecological impact. Here, we compare the consequences of compact and sprawling urban growth patterns on bird distributions across the city of Brisbane, Australia. We predicted the impact on bird populations of adding 84 642 houses to the city in either a compact or sprawling design using statistical models of bird distributions. We show that urban growth of any type reduces bird distributions overall, but compact development substantially slows these reductions at the city scale. Urban-sensitive species particularly benefited from compact development at the city scale because large green spaces were left intact, whereas the distributions of nonnative species expanded as a result of sprawling development. As well as minimizing ecological disruption, compact urban development maintains human access to public green spaces. However, backyards are smaller, which impacts opportunities for people to experience nature close to home. Our results suggest that cities built to minimize per capita ecological impact are characterized by high residential density, with large interstitial green spaces and small backyards, and that there are important trade-offs between maintaining city-wide species diversity and people's access to biodiversity in their own backyard.