Wednesday, February 4

What does density look like?

In my experience, many planning disputes tend to revolve around a notion of density. One side envisions compact, walkable mixed-used developments and lobbies for relaxing zoning laws and allowing more density. The other side wants a quiet and peaceful environment and believes that additional density will have an adverse effect on a neighborhood's quality of life and/or property values. The Charlottesville Planning Commission will be hashing this one out over the course of 2009, but I'm pretty sure this is a standard division among communities across North America.

Maybe one cause of division is that we are using a set concept - Density - and quantifying it, whether in Dwelling Units per Acre (DUA) or Floor to Area Ratio (FAR), in absolute terms. This standard gives us some workable parameters and allows governments to codify their wishes, but clearly not all density is created equal. Design does matter. When one side hears 30 DUA, they see soviet-bloc apartments surrounded by parking lots. When the other side hears 30 DUA, they see traditional neighborhoods of townhouses and brownstones with abundant greenery.

The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has done us all a service with their walk-through website, Visualizing Density. I would recommend that not only professionals, but anyone with a stake in the density of their neighborhood, take a look at this website (there's a book based on this as well, but I have not read it). In my opinion, concepts such as density are better described visually than with words. If a community can, at least, agree on the terms being used, a consensus in goals may follow more readily.


J Keller said...

Hey Daniel,

A great post. I remember when I was interning at Smart Growth America an employee gave a presentation of exactly this topic. She asked us to do a quiz. 10 slides, 2 aerials of a development or neighborhood...which one is more dense. No one did better than 50%. We also got all the smart growth developments wrong. They did not look dense but were substantially denser. Anyways, nice post.

Also, my friend and I started a purely urban planning/issues blog called Smart Growth @
My friend ben is at Catholic U doing his Master of City and Regional Planning, so he does a bunch of DC oriented stuff. Whereas I do more NYC and international stuff.

Hope all is well

Jon Keller

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks. It looks like you're off to a good start at Smart Growth

Babar said...
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