Multiple approaches to densification are needed

By: Michael A. Spotts

One of my New Years resolutions was to post to the blog more. While I'm not off to a great start, I'm not giving up yet.

today, I came across an article from Strong Towns contributor Andrew Price: Surprise Approaches to Achieving Density. In this article, he discusses the different forms that density can take (with pictures) and the problems associated with the tower-based all-or-nothing approach to density.

I offered my initial thoughts on Twitter (click through for full thread: )

Before elaborating further, I want to make it clear that I agree with the same caveat that was featured in the article. Towers can be fine, even preferable depending on the market context. Where land costs are already (and durably) sky-high, it can make sense to build up. However, it is important to avoid creating a situation - artificially through zoning - that makes high-rises the only economical form of multifamily housing. In addition to my thoughts on building costs offered on Twitter, I think it is important to add a note on the distributional impacts of this type of zoning dichotomy.

First, concentrating all density in a small area also concentrates the burden of paying for municipal services and infrastructure. The tax base supporting low-density neighborhoods can be insufficient to support the infrastructure supporting those neighborhoods. High-density neighborhoods may end up subsidizing low-density neighborhoods. In addition to concerns about the long term fiscal sustainability of this arrangement, it is even more problematic if rental housing that is home to a jurisdiction's lower-income households is concentrated in the high-density neighborhoods. This could lead to a regressive situation in which these households are actually subsidizing higher-income homeowners.

A second concern is with the balance of development across a region. By restricting development in some neighborhoods while encouraging it in others, municipalities may facilitate the concentration of capital in certain neighborhoods. While the amount of capital available for real estate development may not be firmly fixed, it is not unlimited within a market. An unbalanced approach to development and density can exacerbate wealth disadvantages and lead to disinvestment and decline in lower-demand neighborhoods that do not support high-density development. Meanwhile, as developers compete for a smaller number of sites where density is allowed and can be accommodated, gentrification can become a concern.

Therefore, while densification is often necessary  and desirable, it is important to pay attention to how it is accomplished. In general, planners would be wise to recognize the limits to predicting where demand will flow and the second order consequences of planning and zoning decisions. This calls for a diverse range of development types and density levels within neighborhoods and across a jurisdiction, allowing for multiple "paths to success," even if development does not occur as predicted.