The virtues of density

Its been said that the only thing Americans hate worse than suburban sprawl is density. While they decry the ugliness and wastefulness of strip malls and monotonous subdivisions, they also believe that developments with a large number of dwelling units per acre are eyesores ridden with crime.

This perception may come from a general, anti-urban prejudice or from encounters with actual, high-density developments that are poorly designed. In some cases, people may have little conception of what density can be like, since most American cities are built to incredibly low densities by world standards.

But there is a growing effort among urban planners and architects to convince the American public that density is not only desirable, but an essential attribute of livable communities. A recent report, Creating Great Neighborhoods: Density in Your Community, by the Local Government Commission, in cooperation with the U.S. EPA and sponsored by the National Association of Realtors, argues that districts of more intense development can help achieve economic, housing, environmental and quality of life goals. Its a shift to a more balanced perspective changing the discussion from Should we have density? to What should the density look like and how should we create it?

Density helps communities achieve a number of important goals:

  • Create walkable neighborhoods where there are enough people to support local businesses.
  • Provide a wider range of affordable housing choices townhouses, apartments, accessory units, live-work spaces to accommodate diverse livestyles.
  • Expand transportation choices by supplying sufficient ridership for viable public transit and by making walking and biking practical alternatives.
  • Improve community fiscal health by making efficient use of infrastructure.
  • Improve safety and security by creating lively streets with more social interaction.
  • Protect the environment by reducing land consumption, thus allowing communities to protect valuable open space, farmland, and ecologically sensitive areas.

The key to achieving these goals is to create density with good design. The report describes five design principles to assure the creation of great places. These include mixing land uses (housing, shopping, workplaces, civic buildings), finding creative solutions for parking, and paying attention to the design of streets so that they are great places for people.


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Creating Great Neighborhoods: Density in Your Community

Moreland Courts near Cleveland's Shaker Square: High-density, elegant lifestyles in a walkable, transit-rich, mixed-use neighborhood.


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