Getting the Density You Want

May 27th, 2009
Article #300

Read an excerpt from this article below. You can download the full article by using the link at the end of the excerpt.

What Does Density Look Like?

When residents hear the term high density, they often picture high-rise housing towers that lack privacy and open space, surrounded by surface parking. And when the term low density is used, large lot rural subdivisions may come to mind. Neither may be the case.

As has been aptly illustrated in Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean's book, Visualizing Density, even the same densities take many different forms and have different impacts on the viewer. Densities of 10 to 20 units per acre may still enable low-rise buildings with access to open space and privacy. Subdivisions that average 1 unit per 10 acres may minimize sprawl and adverse impacts on natural resources by clustering house lots.

Our perceptions of density are usually governed by the design of projects -- how high they are, how they are sited, how close they are to the street, how much landscaping there is, and how doors, windows, porches, and roofs are articulated. Visual preference surveys have shown that people may dismiss one project as too dense while approving of another project that has the same density. One of the challenges for planners and planning commissioners is to determine the qualities that will make desirable densities acceptable in their communities.

Planning for Density

1. The Municipal Plan

The starting point for deciding on density is the municipal plan. The plan sets forth the overall vision for the community and establishes the land use pattern, the transportation system, plans for public facilities and services, and natural resource policies. How do you determine how much density is enough or how much is too much? Each community will have to make this decision given its own situation and vision for the future.

2. Growth Estimates

One of the functions of a municipal plan is to determine how the community will meet current and future needs based on trends in population, housing, jobs and services, and existing conditions. How fast the community is growing, and what the characteristics of the new residents are likely to be, will help determine what densities need to be considered for the future. For example, if a new employer with low-wage jobs announces plans to move to the community, higher density rental housing may be needed. For those areas with a concentration of seasonal homes, low densities to protect lakeshores or steep slopes may be appropriate.

Many communities are now realizing that only a small share of their population (under 25 percent nationally ) consists of two parents with children. Their plans must also provide for single parents, the elderly, empty nesters, and young adults. These households have a variety of housing needs; many desire smaller units that are easily accessible to transportation, retail, and jobs and services.

End of excerpt

... first part of article continues with look at: 3. Inventory of Current Conditions; 4. Connecting with Community Goals; 5. Links to Transportation; 6. Links to Community Services; and 7. Environmental and Natural Resource Protection

Second part of article considers factors in Making Density Work for You: 1. Height; 2. Setbacks; 3. Lot Coverage; 4. Planned Unit & Planned Residential Developments; 5. Bonuses; 6. Parking; 7. Landscaping; 8. Driveways and Garages; 9. Accessory Apartments & Duplexes; and 10. Tear Downs

photo of Beth HumstoneBeth Humstone works as a planning consultant on a wide range of projects in rural communities and small towns. She is an advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation; former Executive Director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl (now Smart Growth Vermont); a past member of the Burlington (VT) Planning Commission; and former Chair of Vermont’s Housing & Conservation Trust Fund Board.

Humstone is co-author, with Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean, of Above and Beyond, Visualizing Change in Small Towns and Rural Areas (APA Planners Press, 2002).

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