This is an enhanced cross-post from my montly column, Community Design Matters, in The Current. There may be some editorial differences.
How many houses per acre are in your subdivision? How many are allowed? How does that make you feel? Should you feel anything at all? I say no and here’s why.
The numbers tell you the density of a given place. The numbers associated with density tell you absolutely nothing about that place other than how many people or separate dwellings are located there. It is a hollow word that says nothing about the charm and lovability of a place.
It can tell you nothing about the value of the homes, quality of the schools, demographics of the residents, congestion of the roads or vibrancy of the neighborhood. The number requires context. The entry for Density in Dhiru Thadani’s encyclopedic Language of Cities and Towns begins with the following paragraph:
Density is the number of individuals or dwelling units per unit of area. The making of vibrant, diverse, and exciting urbanism is directly related to the concentration of population and activity. Density ensures the greatest range of people, buildings, public spaces, facilities, services, and choices. It promotes the easy exchange of ideas and goods and services..
If density ensures the greatest range of people, buildings, public spaces, facilities, services, and choices, why do people generally flip out when anything more than 2 units per acre is proposed in their neighborhood? The word has a stigma and it does so by failing to capture context. The NIMBY response to density has its roots in many misconceptions about density’s relationship to social ills that have been associated with it such as crime, traffic, poor schools, low property values. etc. The thing is, correlation and causation can often be miles apart. Other misguided reasons people give such as they don’t want to be packed in like sardines and they aren’t going to give up the American Dream. Once again, density does a poor job describing an environment. Take Vickery Village or Seaside as examples. These are places where single family homes dominate the landscape but the design increases the density and comfort of the place incredibly well.
The real reason for the NIMBY reaction, in my opinion, is that builders have done it so wrong for so long that virtually every building associated with density in a suburban setting is absolutely god awful, reprehensible, cookie cutter design that should be punished by revocation of architectural licenses. You don’t see the ills in places where density has been done right.
Virtually all of the world’s top tourist destinations are highly dense areas where people live, work, learn and play in very close proximity. With the exception of landscapes, people don’t take pictures and send postcards of places that don’t have some minimum amount of density. You don’t get excited when you receive a postcard of Martin’s Landing, even the well photoshopped ones. People like to see and visit highly beautiful, dense urban areas. Think of Paris, Rome, Santorini, Prague, Seaside, Savannah or Charleston.
So, people like density but they don’t like to admit it to themselves. This is partially because in many cases, developers have put the cart before the horse. Density does not create a successful place (unless you have hundreds of millions of dollars). Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns recently stated,
..density is an expected byproduct of a successful place, not the implement by which we create one.
Maybe this is why Historic Roswell has the most examples of density done right in the northern suburbs. The Bricks, Founders Mill and Canton St Walk/Providence are all excellent and complement the success of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, there aren’t more. Take away these three, and you have literally hundreds of poorly planned, improperly located and shoddily constructed condos, townhouse and apartments sprinkled all over the city. We must do better and cities MUST stop allowing condos, townhouse and apartments to be built where they don’t belong. They belong in the centers of our villages and towns and not anywhere someone can make a buck.
More importantly however, people need to understand that density isn’t the issue. Design and location the things that should concern you.
Community Design Matters Especially if you want "Density Done Right."
This video is a fun exercise to see if you can guess the density. You will quickly learn that the number isn't the issue.