Debunking Myths: The Case for High Density Urban Development

Debunking Myths: The Case for High Density Urban Development

For more than a century, urban sprawl has been the status quo for new development in the United States. Smart developers are seeing a strong demand for new compact developments with a mix of uses. And they are hoping to take advantage of the economic success and value these emerging real estate opportunities offer.

As one of these hopeful developers, however, you may have faced the all-too-common roadblock known as NIMBYism. When opposition to new development within existing communities arises, many developers get portrayed as selfish, greedy, and corrupt. 

To successfully introduce higher density developments into an existing community, a developer must have solid strategies for sustainable urban development. With facts on your side, it becomes easier to help community members get behind the idea of a more walkable and vibrant vision for their city.

Higher Density is Inevitable

Despite its deep-rooted popularity, the continuation of widespread, sprawling, low density development is financially and environmentally unsustainable. The United States adds nearly 3 million new residents per year. Continual low density growth diminishes natural areas, overtakes working farmland, and causes unprecedented amounts of traffic congestion and air and water pollution.

Sprawling towns struggle with funding basic infrastructure. If such development continues, public services will increasingly become less available. Many communities may likely fail altogether under the budget imbalances caused by unlimited low density development.

The majority of American households now include single-parent households, single-person households, empty nesters, and couples without children. These changing demographics create different real estate needs than the households of the past. People are more likely to choose to live in higher density housing in mixed use developments over single-family housing far away from the core of the community.

These realities suggest that well-designed higher density development must continue to occur in place of sprawl. 

The NIMBY Perspective

Unfortunately, many of the same market factors that are driving the expansion of more compact urban development are also changing neighborhoods in a rapid way. This can make long-term residents feel threatened. Economic growth brings a lot of change. Conflict arises as newcomers arrive in an area to fill jobs. Prosperity can drive up rent, highlight cultural differences, and expand inequality within a community.

Frustrated by the changes, many locals make the case against new development based on popular beliefs about high density housing. They claim that such development would bring the ills of traffic, crime, and ugliness to their neighborhood and cause displacement.

High Density Myths

The opponents of higher density development depend on prevalent misconceptions about density to block new development projects in their communities. The first step toward a more sustainable, vibrant, and financially secure community is debunking the myths surrounding high density development.

Myth 1: Traffic

Perhaps the most common fear of higher density development is the suggestion that it will increase traffic. 

However, according to a study using data from the National Personal Transportation Survey, doubling density decreases vehicle miles traveled by 38 percent. Higher density requires less cars per family than low density. With more density comes greater proximity to work, school, and food. Apartment dwellers average 6.3 car trips a day compared to the 10 trips a day of single-family households. For condo and townhome dwellers it is even less at 5.6 – nearly half of that of single-family homes.

Clearly higher density development generates less traffic than low density. 

Myth 2: Crime

Crime is a major concern for the existing residents of a changing community. Contrary to popular belief, there is no relation between density and crime rates.

The misunderstanding may have arisen from crime reports citing an apartment or condominium building as one household instead of the 250 or so that it is in reality. With correct crime reporting, there is not a significant difference between crime rates in high or low density developments.

In fact, in most cases higher density is considered safer because of more people coming and going. For this reason, high density housing is far less likely to be burglarized.

Myth 3: Ugliness

Those who resist higher density development on the account that it is ugly probably have a dated view of what higher density development really looks like. Studies show that people prefer the look of traditional, town-like mixed use communities of the distant past over commercial strip and single family sprawl. Today’s higher density development captures more of the attractive features of traditional cities than do the failed modernist attempts at suburban utopia.

Furthermore, access to amenities and convenience as well as beautiful luxury design features attract many people to high density developments. 

Myth 4: Displacement

The concern of displacement caused by new higher density development actually helps debunk two additional myths. These myths are: (1) that high density development is only for lower-income households, and (2) that higher density developments lower property values in surrounding areas.

The attractiveness of new higher density developments in existing neighborhoods is what draws incomers of high education levels to urban centers. They come for access to amenities and to avoid living in environmentally destructive and culturally sterile suburban sprawl. Their arrival generally increases property values and drives up rent. This creates a condition that has been used as the ultimate trump card to stop new development – gentrification.

Critics argue that gentrification causes the displacement of poor families who can no longer afford to live in the community they call home. There’s plenty reason to believe, however, that displacement is not the “nonnegotiable cost of gentrification.”

A study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that the majority of low-income children born into neighborhoods that later gentrified actually stayed in those neighborhoods. By tracking place of residence on medicaid records the study shows no evidence of elevated rates of mobility for kids born into gentrifying neighborhoods.

The reality is that there’s displacement in all kinds of neighborhoods – including those that aren’t experiencing new, higher density development. When gentrification does occur, original residents have been able to stay and share in neighborhood improvements.

New, higher density development is not the culprit for economic segregation and shouldn’t be viewed as such. High density development can actually keep communities diverse. When paired with affordable housing policies and initiatives, it’s the best way to provide housing at a reasonable cost. This helps to protect against rising rent and evictions.

Strategies for Developers Facing Criticism

In the face of NIMBYism, developers can do a lot to help move development projects forward. Consider the following tips the next time you are presented with a case against higher density development.

Tip 1: Educate the Public

Opponents to higher density may need help understanding how their communities function before they can support the decisions of city officials, planners, designers, and developers. The reality is that in any given locale you can’t have great access to services, unusually low taxes, and low density all at once; you have to choose. The following diagram is a helpful tool:

Once the myths surrounding higher density development are debunked, communities can have the important discussions about what they value most. The public may come to realize that higher density can help achieve other desirable community goals.

Tip 2: Develop Meaningful Projects

If you want to avoid confronting a resentful community, make sure you focus on developing meaningful projects. People can tell if you’re just in it for the money. They want to be assured your project will benefit them as well as you.

Projects with meaning go beyond the standard, run-of-the-mill development deals. They have a story behind them that makes them compelling. People will see a project as a good investment and value-add to the neighborhood if it is thoughtful and meaningful. Consider the highest and best use to mean the use that actually most serves the community. To understand this, you may have to look beyond law and finances in your feasibility studies.

Ask yourself what residents of the neighborhood are lacking and provide that service as part of your development plan.

Tip 3: Speak Up About Politics

Support smart changes in policy that allow for high density development in the right locations. Much of the mindless, sprawling development of the past occurred because of the policy decisions that supported and encouraged it. To promote smart and responsible development, be actively engaged as a citizen. Then you will be enabled to develop such projects yourself.

Higher Density Where it Makes Sense

Developers play a key role in the community as they select and develop sites for new construction. It is imperative that density increases somewhere in order to fix housing crises across the country. It should happen where it makes sense; next to public transit, work centers, restaurants, and other amenities.

In the end, higher density doesn’t mean that what is currently working in communities needs to end. Let’s keep the things we love about where we live while taking a step toward a more livable, sustainable future.