Building at Increased Density Will Result in Increased Livability

Or– Density is Not the Enemy. Sprawl Is.

By Brent Thompson                      

The Oregonian Friday October 25 1991 (Edited 2022)

In the approval process of any development the issue of density is raised.  Those who testify against density don’t realize that the result of low density is sprawl.

Decision makers listen to arguments to lower densities and believe they contribute to livability if they reduce the density on any given project.  However, the result of lowering densities is that it takes more space to house people and to provide services for them.  Distances between everything increase.  As distances increase, the need for parking lots increases.   With increased distances walking and bicycling are not convenient.  Public transportation is not viable because bus lines cannot economically cover the huge spaces the cities consume for development.  The only viable alternative to go from place to place is the car.

The huge parking lots serve as further barriers to walking bicycling, and public transportation. Developers likely with encouragement from decision makers want more and more parking, so that even on the busiest three or four days per year those who want to visit this or that store or mall can easily find parking for their cars.

This whole development pattern is a waste of land, fuel, and other resources, and the end products, sprawl, automobile congestion, and foul air, detract from the very livability so eagerly sought with the plea for lower densities and more parking.

What is the solution to this problem?  The solution has three main parts with each part having many elements.  Each element affects the others, and together they have a beneficial synergistic effect that results in more walkable, more interesting, more livable, and less resource wasting cities.

The first part of the solution is increasing densities to where public transportation is viable.  Currently we grow at fewer than 3000 people per square mile.  Using Jackson County as an example the two largest cities (1991) Medford and Ashland have densities of 2600 and 2800 people per square mile respectively.  To support public transportation and to make walking and bicycling more convenient, target densities should be 5000 people per square mile.  To achieve this density, future annexations should not be linked solely to land supply in cities but also to density.

Population increases could be absorbed in the boundaries of a city through small accessory dwellings or apartments in single-family zones.  Space wasted by overly large parking lots could be developed into more stores or residences.  Parking for normal needs could be retained, but overflow parking for peak days could be declared surplus which allows for more development.

All commercial areas except for heavy industry could become mixed use zones. Parking requirements could be based on which use, residential or commercial, created the greater demand, with no additional requirement for the use that requires less parking.   It is apparent that in both multifamily zones and commercial zones, the peak need in one zone generally is the low point of need in the other zone.

The second part of the solution is to implement common open space to mitigate the effects of increased density.  Most projects call for one or two story buildings which results in a great waste of land.  If two, three, or four story buildings became the norm—with a portion of each project set aside for open space- –more development could be undertaken in a smaller area with less negative impact.

In subdivisions and apartment complexes density bonuses could be tied to the provision for open space.

The third part of the solution is to implement site design guidelines that provide an interesting streetscape, and that encourage alternate forms of transportation. Currently many projects are built with barriers to walking and bicycling. Parking lots are placed between the buildings and streets.  Fences are placed between different projects and between commercial and residential projects.  Walkways are not provided.  Bicycle parking racks are not provided.  Buildings have stark walls that stretch for many feet along public walkways creating a cold and unwelcoming approach.  Entrances to building face parking lots and not streets.  Bus stops are not formalized.

All these things discourage walking, bicycling, and public transportation, but with well formulated site design guidelines these and other barriers can be reduced or eliminated thereby making environments more comfortable for people out of their cars.

Density can go unnoticed if people are made comfortable, but sprawl will never go unnoticed nor will it ever be comfortable.

Density is not the enemy of livability, sprawl is.