The Need for a Balanced Approach to Density

Urbanists tend to hold two prevailing viewpoints on urban density and affordability. Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, argues that affordability and sufficiently dense growth patterns can only be achieved if cities abandon the development-restricting policies that reduce the supply of units. These policies, such as historic preservation initiatives and height limits, are what Preservation Green Lab’s Liz Dunn says create successful and livable neighborhoods. While both parties acknowledge that many people prefer older, smaller-scale areas, unrestricted density advocates, like Glaeser, hold that neighborhood character is a tradeoff that must be accepted to achieve affordability.

There are several ways cities can (and should) balance preservation with the need for affordability. First, planners should begin addressing the issue by loosening development regulations and streamlining permitting processes. Many lengthy processes, such as design review, slow down development projects and increase costs, which are then passed along to tenants. Developing more prescriptive guidelines and eliminating such permitting barriers would help to improve the affordability of new construction.

Second, cities should develop coherent and well-defined growth strategies that allocate the most unrestricted density to less-sensitive neighborhoods while allowing for limited infill in more historic areas. By developing clear neighborhood growth guidelines that balance preservation and density, cities can provide neighborhoods with a range of housing options and levels of affordability.

Finally, cities should allow for and incentivize more intense development on underutilized land. Rapidly growing cities often contain large areas that are either under-zoned or have not yet experienced enough investment to spur development. Seattle, for example, is the fastest-growing large city in the US and 65% of its land area is still zoned for single-family homes with lots averaging 5,000 square feet. It is generally politically infeasible to concentrate significant levels of new growth in existing single-family neighborhoods. However, one way to address this would be to allow for context-sensitive infill development in these zones to increase their density, such as townhouses or rowhouses.

These three strategies demonstrate that affordability and density are not mutually exclusive. There are a range of approaches cities can adopt to accommodate density and growth while preserving the “urban grain” that makes neighborhoods unique.


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