Density Dilemma

A certain contingent of the “smart growth” community seems to adopt a Pollyanna attitude towards higher-density housing — “build it and they will come” — despite abundant evidence to the contrary (polling data indicating strong consumer preference for suburban living/neighborhoods; continuing growth in suburban areas nationally; strong NIMBY resistance; etc.). Anthony Flint’s new paper for the Lincoln Institute on Land Policy offers a reality check, highlighting the obstacles facing higher-density, transit-oriented development. Here’s the abstract (key points in bold):

Accommodating up to 100 million more people in the US over the next several decades in anything other than suburban sprawl requires functional and well-designed development projects that feature greater density. Compact and particularly transit-oriented development has increased in popularity in recent years in some parts of the country, as consumers seek improvements to quality of life such as shorter commutes. But while there is an emerging marketplace for density, it is limited by a number of factors. The appeal of density appears to be concentrated in certain demographic sectors, such as single professionals without children. Successful developments provide access to transit and amenities within walking distance, but also parking, because few residents are willing to part company with their cars. Compact, transit-oriented development tends to be expensive, requiring affirmative programs to include lower-income residents. And even when some consumers prefer density, established neighborhoods resist such projects, concerned about congestion, property values and strains on municipal finances and services, primarily schools, which could lead to higher taxes. An investigation of compact and transit-oriented development in Texas, California, Oregon, Maryland and Massachusetts reveals evolving attitudes about density and the importance of physical design, functionality, community relations and public perception, all of which suggests serious challenges ahead for density in America.

The full study is available here (free registration required). Here’s a recent example of a density backlash, via Tysons Corner, VA. And for more on this issue, see here, here, and here. (Via Planetizen)