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Considering Residents’ Needs in Planning for Higher Density Housing

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In many American communities, from cities to small towns, there is pressure to build at higher densities than the standard single-family house with its own front, back and side yards. Land and construction costs are placing much new housing beyond the means of more and more households. The traditional family — mom, dad and the kids — is changing. Concerns about building over agricultural land around our towns and cities, and about long commutes and polluted air, are prompting increased discussion of how and where to build at higher densities. By building for the same number of households but using up less land, we can begin to curb suburban sprawl, build fewer miles of freeway, and lose less productive land.

One of the key issues in doing this successfully is the site-planning of such housing: how can buildings, streets, parking, outdoor space and so on, be arranged on a given plot of land so as to ensure adequate privacy, community, security, and pleasant outlooks for the residents?

Perceived Density

A basic design issue relates to what is known as perceived density. The term “density” usually refers to the number of units per spatial area — for example, four dwelling units per acre, or two hundred people per square mile.

The numerical figure of density and how residents actually perceive or experience it can be two very different things.

The numerical figure of density and how residents actually perceive or experience it, however, can be two very different things. For example, two town house developments might be proposed, both meeting a zoning or planning criterion of — “no more than 25 dwelling units to the acre.” Yet the one with inadequate parking or minimal landscaping may be perceived as being at a much higher density, compared to a design where each house has sufficient, convenient, secure parking, and views of other buildings or adjacent streets filtered through trees.

In a society such as ours, where the ideal of most people — especially families — is low-density single-family housing, the more a designer can do to reduce perceived density, the more satisifed residents of medium-density housing will be with their environment. …

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