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Creating Great Neighborhoods: Density in Your Community

Makes the case for density in creating high-quality living and discusses cases of well-designed density


Increased traffic congestion, loss of open space, infrastructure costs, and a desire for more housing options have all made smart growth an increasingly powerful strategy for building and revitalizing communities, catalyzing economic development and protecting the environment.

Evidence of this trend is every-where. Of the 189 ballot initiatives in 2002 related to state and local conservation, 141 were approved. Elected in 2002, Massachusetts Republican Governor Mitt Romney, Michigan Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm and Pennsylvania Democratic Governor Ed Rendellare poised to make smart growth actions a high priority.

Smart growth projects nationwide were built in record numbers, continuing a five-year upward trend, reported “The New Urban News,” an industry publication that tracks new development. Cities and towns across the country are re-examining and changing comprehensive plans, zoning and other building regulations to make smart growth possible.

Many states and localities are creating neighborhoods that offer a variety of transportation options, access to parks and recreation, a wide range of housing types, economic opportunity, lively streets, and quiet residential neighborhoods. Ironically, many communities pursuing these goals often inadvertently impede their achievement. How? By opposing a feature key to smart growth and to the success of so many great places: density.

Often blamed for more traffic, crime, parking shortages and ugly architecture, density faces broad opposition. Objections to density are not without basis.

Poorly designed density feeds public frustration. Office parks with no access to transit or side-walks to homes have forced more driving, high-rise projects with no retail activity on the street have created unsafe neighborhoods, dense development without parks has limited recreation opportunities, and poorly designed housing has infringed on privacy. A common community response has been to oppose any and all density.

This exacerbates quality of life problems. Jurisdictions that prohibit density create an environment where low-density development is the only option, open spaces are consumed at alarming rates, traffic congestion increases as people drive longer distances between work and home, and subdivisions grow up without any town center, any corner store or any sense of community.

As communities confront the consequences of low-density development, a more balanced perspective emerges. People are beginning to realize that nodes of more intense development can help achieve local economic development goals, provide housing options, create walkable neighborhoods, and protect their air, water and open space. This balance helps create a sense of place – a place to walk, a place to talk to neighbors, a place to know the children are safe to walk to school. To create these great places, communities are zoning some areas for higher density and a mix of houses, with parks, schools and shops.

This more balanced perspective changes the discussion from “Should we have density?” to “What should the density look like and how should we create it?” The discussion invites citizens to think about designing great places, rather than just thinking about density. It reflects a lesson being learned across the country: to create great communities, neighbor-hoods must combine density with great design.

Arlington County, Virginia, provides an early example of successful integration of higher density development into the community fabric. Since the 1970’s, the county has concentrated development activity along its two rail transit corridors. The process created a community with expanded transportation and housing choices, a strong economy, low property taxes and a diversity of livable neighborhoods.

Density has given residents the opportunity to live in neighbor-hoods that meet their lifestyle preferences and economic means. Residents can choose to live in any number of amenity-rich neighborhoods where they are a short walk or bike ride from shopping, parks, schools and restaurants and a subway ride or drive to work and regional destinations.

Although less than seven percent of the county’s land area is high-density development, it generates 33 percent of the county's real estate taxes, allowing the jurisdiction to haveone of the lowest tax rates inthe region. Integrating density ina concentrated area lets thecounty offer urban living tosome and protect suburban livingfor others while increasing prop-erty values and maintaining community character