Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Density deficits

More News & Resources:

[This is another in what we hope will be a large series of expert blogs on TOD highlighting work and research that experts are doing in the field.  Today's post is by David Dixon FAIA, principal-in-charge

Planning and Urban Design at Goody Clancy.]

Destiny and density
Much has been written for this blog about the role of increased density in creating successful TODs. Memories of crowded pre-World War II tenements and the anonymous urban-renewal towers that replaced them, together with five decades of urban disinvestment, rendered the idea of increased density unpopular and unmarketable. Dramatic shifts in demographics and values, however, are rapidly reversing this situation.

ULI vice president Maureen McAvey says that “demographics are destiny,” and a rapid growth in younger and older homebuyers has transformed America from a mass housing market into what the ULI terms “a nation of niches.” While roughly three-quarters of households seeking housing included children in the 1970s, today the figure has dropped to less than one-quarter. Housing analyst Laurie Volk’s detailed research indicates that one- and two-person households now make up more than half America’s urban housing market, and these households increasingly seek townhouses, lofts, and other higher-density housing in short supply in most urban neighborhoods. She argues that demographics will support this trend for another 15 to 20 years. Economist Arthur Nelson emphasizes the growing potential demand for higher-density housing by projecting that America has roughly as much “large-lot suburban” housing and less than half as much “small-lot urban” housing as it will need in 2030.

Demand for higher-density housing and related amenities—shops, parks and, increasingly, jobs—within walking distance is transforming real estate markets. Chris Leinberger, a developer working with the Brookings Institution, reports that mixed-use, walkable developments now claim a premium of as much as 40% per square foot over single-use developments in the same community. Carol Coletta, who heads CEOs for Cities, reports that for every one point increase in “Walkability Score,”  housing values in 24 metropolitan areas increased by up to $6,000. During the current recession, suburban real estate values have suffered far more than urban counterparts. 

Five blog entries that follow will make the case that the advantages of increased density—particularly enhanced walkability, concentrated disposable income, and fiscal rewards—make density not only relevant, but critical to making America’s cities more livable: building a sense of community in the midst of a more diverse society; restoring personal choices that have steadily diminished over the past five decades; fostering improved public health; achieving significant improvements in environmental sustainability; and creating a new generation of places that people love.

Next: Restoring personal choices

Part 1: Density deficits
Part 2: Restoring personal choices
Part 3: Building community in the midst of diversity
Part 4: Fostering public health
Part 5: Enhancing sustainability
Part 6: Creating places that people love