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Higher-Density Development: Myth and Fact

The purpose of this publication is to dispel the many myths surrounding higher-density development and to create a new understanding of density that goes beyond simplistic negative connotations that overestimate its impact and under­estimate its value.


America’s changing population is creating demand for new types of homes, offices, and retail outlets. Better solutions are needed to the challenges created by changing demographics, dwindling natural areas, smog and public health issues, shrinking municipal budgets, and traffic congestion. Commu­nities that answer these challenges will develop into great places to live.

America will add roughly 43 million new residents—that’s 2.7 million new residents per year—between now and 2020.1 America is not only growing but also under­going dramatic demographic changes. The traditional two-parent household with children is now less than a quarter of the population and getting proportionally smaller. Single-parent households, single-person households, empty nesters, and couples without children make up the new majority of American households, and they have quite different real estate needs.2 These groups are more likely to choose higher-density housing in mixed-density communities that offer vibrant neighbor­hoods over single-family houses far from the community core.

The fact is that continuing the sprawling, low-density haphazard development pat­tern of the past 40 years is unsustainable, financially and otherwise. It will exacer­bate many of the problems sprawl has already created—dwindling natural areas and working farms, increasingly longer commutes, debilitating traffic congestion, and harmful smog and water pollution. Local officials now realize that paying for basic infrastructure—roadways and schools, libraries, fire, police, and sewer services —spread over large and sprawling distances is inefficient and expensive.

Most public leaders want to create vibrant, economically strong communities where citizens can enjoy a high quality of life in a fiscally and environmentally responsible manner, but many are not sure how to achieve it. Planning for growth is a compre­hensive and complicated process that requires leaders to employ a variety of tools to balance diverse community interests. Arguably, no tool is more important than increasing the density of existing and new communities, which includes support for infill development, the rehabilitation and reuse of existing structures, and denser new development. Indeed, well-designed and well-integrated higher-density devel­opment makes successful planning for growth possible.

Density refers not only to high-rise buildings. The definition of density depends on the context in which it is used. In this publication, higher density simply means new residential and commercial development at a density that is higher than what is typically found in the existing community. Thus, in a sprawling area with single-family detached houses on one-acre lots, single-family houses on one-fourth or one-eighth acre are considered higher density. In more densely populated areas with single-family houses on small lots, townhouses and apartments are con­sidered higher-density development. For many suburban communities, the popu­lar mixed-use town centers being developed around the country are considered higher-density development.

Most land use professionals and community leaders now agree that creating com­munities with a mix of densities, housing types, and uses could be the antidote to sprawl when implemented regionally. And across the country, the general public is becoming more informed and engaged in making the tough land use choices that need to be made while understanding the consequences of continuing to grow as we have in the past. Many have also come to appreciate the “place-making” bene­fits of density and the relationship between higher-density development and land preservation. Media coverage of the topic of growth and development has also evolved. Past media coverage of growth and development issues was often limited to the heated conflicts between developers and community residents. Many in the media are now presenting more thoughtful and balanced coverage, and several editorial boards support higher-density developments in their communities as an antidote to regional sprawl.

Yet despite the growing awareness of the complexity of the issue and growing sup­port for higher-density development as an answer to sprawl, many still have ques­tions and fears related to higher-density development. How will it change the neigh­borhood? Will it make traffic worse? What will happen to property values? And what about crime? Ample evidence—documented throughout this publication—suggests that well-designed higher-density development, properly integrated into an existing community, can become a significant community asset that adds to the quality of life and property values for existing residents while addressing the needs of a growing and changing population.

Many people’s perception of higher-density development does not mesh with the reality. Studies show that when surveyed about higher-density development, those interviewed hold a negative view. But when shown images of higher-density versus lower-density development, people often change their perceptions and prefer higher density.3 In a recent study by the National Association of Realtors® and Smart Growth America, six in ten prospective homebuyers, when asked to choose between two communities, chose the neighborhood that offered a shorter com­mute, sidewalks, and amenities like shops, restaurants, libraries, schools, and pub­lic transportation within walking distance. They preferred this option over the one with longer commutes and larger lots but limited options for walking.4 The 2001 American Housing Survey further reveals that respondents cited proximity to work more often than unit type as the leading factor in housing choice.5 Such contra­dictions point to widespread misconceptions about the nature of higher-density development and sprawl. Several of these misconceptions are so prevalent as to be considered myths.

To some degree, these myths are the result of memories people have of the very­high-density urban public housing projects of the 1960s and 1970s that have been subsequently deemed a failure. Somehow, the concept of density became associated with the negative imagery and social problems of depressed urban areas. The reality Myth and Fact is that complex interrelated factors such as the high concentration of poverty and poor educational and employment opportunities combined to doom the public housing projects. Even very-high-density housing can be practical, safe, and desir­able. For example, the mixed-income apartments and condominiums or luxury high rises in New York and Chicago—some of the safest and most expensive housing in the country—prove that density does not equal an unsafe environment.

The purpose of this publication is to dispel the many myths surrounding higher-density development and to create a new understanding of density that goes beyond simplistic negative connotations that overestimate its impact and under­estimate its value. Elected officials, concerned citizens, and community leaders can use this publication to support well-designed and well-planned density that creates great places and great communities that people love. With the anticipated popula­tion growth and continuing demographic and lifestyle changes, consensus is build­ing that creating communities with a mix of densities, housing types, and uses will be both necessary and desirable.

Higher-Density Development: Myth and Fact is the sixth in a series of Urban Land Institute myth and fact booklets. The series is intended to clarify misconceptions surrounding growth and development. Other topics covered have included trans­portation, smart growth, urban infill housing, environment and development, and mixed-income housing.

Higher-Density Development: Myth and Fact examines widespread misconceptions related to higher-density development and seeks to dispel them with relevant facts and information. Although the benefits of higher-density development are often understated, so are the detrimental effects of low-density development. The advan­tages and drawbacks of higher-density development are compared throughout this publication with the alternative of low-density development. In the process, mis­conceptions regarding low-density development are also addressed.