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Density Redux

The entire conversation about density that I started here on Monday (which actually grew out of another fascinating conversation going on over at the Strong Towns Network) has taken on a life of its own, going off into regions I did not think people would take it. It is fascinating to me, especially because we have so many intelligent people participating in this conversation and, to be quite frank, I'm not sure if we agree or disagree with each other.

I want to explore this entire thing over time, but before we can start that, I want to back up and simplify my central thesis from Monday. I think I can simplify it down to three points, which I would list in order of importance as:

  1. Productive land use patterns will often result in increased density, but an increase in density does not automatically mean a productive land use pattern.

  2. Within the constraint of modern zoning, the planning profession's (and apparently many other's) obsession with density often has bizarre and unhealthy consequences. Because of the limitations of modern zoning codes, emphasizing density over other design factors leads to undesirable consequences. (Suggested change by Foraker on the Strong Towns Network)

  3. Our regulation of density presupposes a level of knowledge and foresight that we don't posses.

Of these three, the first two seem fairly self evident while I can understand why the third, for many, is a greater leap. I'll focus on these first two today and we'll swing back around to the third at some point in the future before we hit some of the "related" issues of transit, form based codes, finance, public health, environmental issues, climate change and others that have been brought into the conversation. I put "related" in quotation marks because many of you seem to think that density is THE answer to all of our problems. Wish it were that easy, but it just isn't so.

Premise: Productive land use patterns will often result in increased density, but an increase in density does not automatically mean a productive land use pattern.

To make my point on this, on Monday I brought up urban renewal as an example. The idea that we would tear down functioning neighborhoods and replace them with high density towers in a park like setting is one scheme of the planning profession that achieved density but spectacularly failed on all other accounts.

The Agenda 21 paranoia being spread lately by the likes of Glen Beck intimates that we are going to be rounded up into high density work camps. While it is disheartening that this buffoonery is taken as anything more than a very poor knock off of Cormac McCarthy fiction, it feeds on our basic understanding that a work camp may achieve density, but there is no productivity.

Let's examine something a little more relevant to America circa 2013. Two years ago I wrote a piece called On Beyond Infill (I also included it in my book for those of you that have it) that included this photo. While there are certainly some in the planning profession that would look at this as progress, I have to believe it is a minority opinion. Certainly, outside of the density worshiping crowd, this is seen for the failure that it is. On the site in the background we've achieved density -- yes -- but it is hard to see how this neighborhood will prosper in the coming decades, or even endure for that matter.

These have all been instances where high density has not resulted in productivity, but how about the opposite? There are clearly areas of low density that are highly productive. I am fond of telling the story of how the farm I grew up on used to be served by a very modest road, Click for licensing and attribution.essentially a couple of tire tracks through the woods. When two cars would meet going in opposite directions (a rare occurrence), one of the drivers would need to back up to a driveway to let the other pass. While these farms produced relatively modest amount of tax revenue or commercial activity, they didn't demand hardly any public services. In other words, this was a very productive environment due largely to the lack of density.

So clearly it is not true that there is a simple relationship -- even in an urban setting -- between density and productivity. There is clearly more to building human habitat that will prosper than density.

Premise: Within the constraint of modern zoning, the planning profession's (and apparently many others) obsession with density often has bizarre and unhealthy consequences.

When we focus on just density, we miss so many of the fine grained things that make a place successful. One of the reasons I was drawn to the Congress for the New Urbanism is that this acknowledgement is a core belief. In fact, my comings and goings among the New Urbanist crowd may have dulled me to the recognition that this is not self evident.

I'm going to quote Shane Phillips of Seattle, Washington, who made a very insightful comment on the Strong Towns Network discussion board:

When you say "density bonus" I believe you mean when planners allow buildings with a bit more mass or height in exchange for some "public good," whether that be a park, affordable housing, money for the metro system, whatever. I interpret this as a system in which planners are treating density as a bad thing, and they're only willing to grant more of it if the developer is willing to pony up some goodies. The alternative, which is certainly possible, is that the planners don't dislike density, but are willing to withhold it in return for things they value more, like the above examples.

With modern zoning, density is the currency of the local bureaucracy. We trade in density as a way to leverage other aims. Those aims may be in the public's interest -- I'd like to think that is the way most try to operare -- and sometimes we may confuse the public's interest with the goals of the staff (ie. more parking or additional revenue for STROADS).

I love San Diego and I think it has to be one of the greatest cities in our country, but I'm perplexed by the random towers that show up across the landscape there. I'm told that the land is so valuable that only huge towers are profitable, but that makes no sense. The land is so valuable because a developer -- if they have deep enough pockets to bargain for all the density -- can build a tower. If they couldn't build a tower but could only incrementally add on to their property, the underlying land value would be much different. That this distorts all property values, harming the average citizens in the process, is just one unsavory side effect.

(I realize that may be a leap for some, so let me divert with a little more detail. The property values are established in the "market" where the deep pocketed bidders can drive up the price and recoup their costs through higher density. This makes all property values go up because, theoretically, they could also have such returns. If we step back and look at the situation, every property in San Diego is not going to have a tower on it. The demand is not that high. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of properties will develop in this way. So what is being done in San Diego -- and many, many other cities across the U.S. -- is that we are choosing a pattern of growth that advantages the few, wealthy developers while disadvantaging the small, incremental developers. That this approach gives a windfall to a few while regressively distributing the tax burden to those that will not develop towers is simply a feature that adds insult to injury.)

I realize that we long ago got rid of zoning approaches that were overtly discriminatory, but that does not mean our zoning practices are not socially harmful. For those of you that don't know the history, it may or may not shock you that zoning was originally used largely for racial segregation. Even here in Minnesota, our major cities had districts where minorities were specifically excluded by zoning.

Today we don't segregate by race but by class. Someone show me one of these high density developments that has a true mix of price points. Where is the apartment or condo that has lower income units side by side with exclusive, multi-million dollar units? High density is often synonymous with "poor". Where it is not, it is synonymous with "exclusive". Either way, we're not learning any lessons from our experiments with housing projects and gated communities.

When we look at the amenities that are negotiated for when trafficking in density bonuses, they are rarely altruistic. Additional parking spaces. Some green space that is generally exclusive to the development. Or my favorite: native plantings.

And finally, inherent in this notion of density through the framework of modern zoning is the understanding that it has to go somewhere. You may not want it in your back yard, but we understand (wink, wink) that we need apartments, towers and condos somewhere. Somewhere that will house those people or provide us with a sugar rush of increased tax revenue. Just as long as I don't have it in my back yard, I won't show up at the meeting and protest. It is a necessary evil, just make it somebody else's.

I'm not a social scientist, but my heart tells me that there could be few widely held sentiments so destructive to society. This reminds me of Ian Rasmussen's party analogy, the concept that development used to be something that we embraced because that incremental growth made our places better. We now abhor it because it is so nasty and destructive. A community of NIMBY's is a broken community, yet it is hard to say that the NIMBY mentality is not a rational one in America today.

Okay, all ye out there that are the iron that sharpens my blade, I welcome your comments but am going to make two requests. First, let's narrow this conversation for now to a debate of these two premises. If there is something else, give us an OT alert and I'll try and pick it up later. I really want to drill down into these two insights and shore them up. Second, if you would be so kind, I'd love to take the bulk of this discussion over to the Network site. The interface is so much better, the conversation richer and more personal and the ability to add links, photos and other info just makes it all a superior experience.

Here are the links to the Strong Towns Network conversations on these two:

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Reader Comments (11)

I suppose I can register and come over to the .net side later today, but one question for now.

While I agree with both premises (except maybe attributing #2 to the obsessions of the planning profession rather than the market distortions caused by poor zoning), I'm wondering about the practicality of how this type of incremental development works.

Does anyone know of any substantial examples of where a neighborhood or block single-family detached homes was incrementally upgraded to more intense development?

I know it happens easily where you have attached buildings, but I'm wondering if the nature of single-family detached makes building differently than my neighbors more difficult.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Not to be glib, Tim, but don't we have thousands of years of human history in building settlements that demonstrates the point?

I think the better question would be, where in the suburban experiment has it been shown that a non-incremental approach can consistently produced superior results over time?

January 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

"Does anyone know of any substantial examples of where a neighborhood or block single-family detached homes was incrementally upgraded to more intense development?"

Almost any college or university student neighborhood. Most of them started out as single-family neighborhoods that gradually converted into denser, multi-family environments. Often times, the built form doesn't really change, as existing homes are converted into duplexes or multi-unit rentals. Some communities zone these in a way so that when market demand and property values reach a certain point, developers come in and buy up the old houses, knock them down, and replace them with apartment buildings. Ann Arbor, Michigan has some perfect case studies on how this all plays out with all of the elements that Chuck has described - unintended consequences of zoning rules, trading density for amenities, neighbors versus developers versus city hall, historic preservation, the limitations of traditional zoning codes, etc. I've included a link to a series of articles from the local paper about the City Place project that perfectly embodies all of the above. Read through those to get a sense of how this plays out

City Place articles

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteraim

Tim, the nature of Euclidean zoning makes it difficult, if not impossible, for single-family neighborhoods to evolve to more intense uses. To do this a substantial number of properties would have to be rezoned at the same time in order to avoid accusations of spot (i.e. arbitrary) zoning. So unless a developer acquires all of the parcels in a particular block or the neighbors petition the planning department for a rezoning in mass, evolution of a neighborhood to higher, more intense uses is all but impossible. So instead what we get is the tear down phenomenon in which older housing stock is demolished and replaced with new construction, insensitive to the character of the existing neighborhood, that maximizes the building envelope allowed by the zoning. This typically happens in desirable neighborhoods where the value of the land exceeds the value of the improvements.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMontag

I understand, intuitively, that neighborhoods are living, breathing organisms that must adapt or die. However... as long as I'm a slave to the mortgage company my first concern is "preservation of property value" based on keeping my neighborhood Just Like It Is. As a planner, I love to visit dynamic neighborhoods. As a homeowner, I want to live in own a home in a covenant-controlled, generic, single-family, easy-to-flip suburbia.

It's a perverse rationale, but it's also pervasive.

My thought as a planner zoner is to at least provide Choices for those brave souls who want to live and grow dynamically. Maybe the best we can do is to first do no harm.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJC

What aim is describing is the e mass up-zoning of older, mostly pre-war neighborhoods that occurred in the 1950s and 60s. Such rezonings were applied with the justification that they would stimulate redevelopment in so called "blighted" neighborhoods. Unfortunately without a form based code component this type of zoning basically just opened the door the cheapest, speculative type of multi-family construction that only served to further to blight and diminish whatever character remained in the neighborhood. Most cities tried to reverse the damage,starting in 1970s and 80s, by down-zoning back to single-family uses. This was done with the notion that the real problem was the proliferation of rental properties, not the lack of design controls which permitted cruddy development. The few remaining examples of this pattern, as indicated by aim, are around universities where slum lords and college students tend thrive in some sort a symbiotic relationship.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMontag

I believe the main driving factor of increasing prices in San Diego is largely demand, not deep pocket developers. As long as the neighborhood remains desirable, and as long as the demand for housing exceeds the supply, then home prices are going to continue to rise. Case in point is the Costal Areas, which have had a 30 foot height limit for decades. In a place where towers are banned, land prices have skyrocketed because demand is so high, and supply is greatly limited.

I understand your point about deep pockets driving costs, but quite frankly most people who shell out $800,000 for a home in this neighborhood have no intension of developing it. If anything, they want to hold on to it and sell it at a profit in 5 years.

January 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWalter Chambers

Density is a great tool for comprehensive planning. It is a sufficient (and probably best) proxy for measuring impacts on area- or city-wide systems. Infrastructure LOS, transit investments, retail market trade areas, parks service, school investments, etc. all benefit from a heightened analysis and more specific planning for density applied to broad areas of land. (...rarely done in most comp plans).

Density is a poor tool for regulating - particularly when we short circuit the above analysis by letting density become a proxy for land use at the zoning district scale, and a problem exacerbated for development review when district density ranges (rarely used in zoning...) is imposed on a project and site scale.

Density is about the worst tool to use for urban design / building design - it is an abstract number that means nothing. Using it as such over-rides any marginal use zoning may have as a regulationg tool (point 2); and completely erases any value it had as a planning tool (point 1).

But the crux of the problem is, we fail to use density constructively as a planning tool, the more and more it gets reinforced as the best regulating / urban design tool we have (i.e. "look at all the harms - (real and perceived ) - we prohibited..." never considering all the good it could have done but is not doing.)

January 17, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterchris

I just wanted to post this article as additional material regarding the pursuit of density alone. (This may have already entered the conversation at "the Network", so I apologize if it's a repeat.)

January 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

@Tim, Calgary's neighbourhoods of Altadore and South Calgary are seeing quite a lot of intensification right now with buildings in the 2-3 storey range from smaller lot single family to apartments.
The area seems to have originally be developed around 1950 with lots of low density bungalows. However, Calgary has seen lots of growth since then, and they've gone from being the suburban outskirts of a small city to centrally located neighbourhoods of a big city. These 1950s bungalows were less dense than much of what is being built on the outskirts, so it only made sense for them to get redeveloped. Other similar neighbourhoods of Calgary are seeing the same happen on a smaller scale.

You have the same stuff happening in Houston too. What used to be the suburbs of a small city now have become the core of a major metropolis and are being intensified incrementally.

January 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick

Chuck, in your blog you noted that "we long ago got rid of zoning approaches that were overtly discriminatory". I think it is important to note that not all zoning approaches that discriminate have been gotten rid of. Economic discrimination is still alive and well. What I mean by this is that it is still very legal to segregate by income through the forced separation of housing types under Euclidean zoning practices. We shouldn't be forgetting this until it can be corrected on a more wide spread basis.

January 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Hathorne
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