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Assessing the Benefits of Higher Density in American Cities

By David Dixon, FAIA

The increased density, interest, and investment now being seen in American cities can yield documented benefits. Considering these, architects can galvanize public officials, community and public interest advocates, planners and landscape architects, developers, and others to translate a new chapter of growth into a new chapter of livability as our cities become higher-density communities.

With a strong, clear, green agenda, growing downtowns, urban neighborhoods, and closer-in older suburbs will yield more sustainable regions. With transportation factored in, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports that a household living in a green urban building uses roughly half as much energy as the same household living in a sustainable suburban house—even one with a hybrid fueled car in the garage.

A strong green agenda will also produce healthier regions. Repeated studies by the Centers for Disease Control, the University of Southern California, and other organizations have shown that offering people new opportunities to live in walkable neighborhoods—not just places with handsome tree-lined sidewalks, but communities in which people can walk to work, shopping, parks, schools, and other everyday destinations—has a significant and quantifiably positive impact on public health.

With a strong, clear social contract, increased economic value will produce increased civic value. Top economic development analysts, such as Massachusetts-based Mount Auburn Associates, report that the presence of more people in urban and closer-in suburban neighborhoods attracts high-quality jobs and other economic activity back into cities—providing the fiscal resources to pay for affordable housing, expanded transit, neighborhood libraries and schools, and other essential elements of livability the public sector is increasingly unable to fund. The District of Columbia reports that new downtown housing has helped D.C. capture a growing share of the region’s class A office space for the first time since World War II.

With careful planning and design, higher-density housing can breathe new life back into older Main Streets. A study by the architecture, planning, and preservation firm Goody Clancy and the Boston-based real estate consultants Byrne/McKinney concluded that in an era in which households spend less of their disposable income in local commercial districts than when most of these districts were built, 1,000 to 2,000 new housing units within a 15-minute walk can support a new or renewed block of urban retail—essential to a walkable neighborhood center. The densities needed to provide this new housing often involve a mix of small-lot, single-family housing, row houses, lower-rise lofts, and similar housing types that can be integrated into existing neighborhood fabric.

Higher-density housing can accommodate the new diversity in economics, age, race, and culture in the American population. Well-designed higher-density housing can offer older people a chance to age in their communities, younger people a chance to stay in their communities as they enter the workforce, and people with a broad range of housing needs and aspirations the opportunity to share the same communities.

With a commitment to transit-oriented development, smarter growth can add vitality without aggravating congestion. In the 1990s, growing sprawl in the Boston region meant that hours lost to congestion rose roughly 50 percent—ten times faster than the region’s slowly rising population. Reconnecting America reports that households that live within walking distance of transit make only about half as many trips in their cars (and spend far less on transportation).

Development that leads to new density in older U.S. cities and inner suburbs can set the stage for an influx of new wealth, sustainable practices, and community values that promotes social justice by supporting a new generation of transportation, affordable housing, and needed social services. It can, in short, unlock our ability as a society to build a future that benefits everybody—and architects can and should lead the way.


David Dixon, FAIA, is Principal in Charge of Planning and Urban Design at Goody, Clancy & Associates, in Boston, Massachusetts. He was 2006 chair of the AIA Regional and Urban Design Committee and received the 2007 AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for leadership in public architecture.


Keywords: Leadership, Issues, Social issues, Public outreach, National economies, Regional economies, Urban policy, Urban planning and design, Urban revitalization, Density, Smart growth, Transit-oriented development, Sustainable communities, Livable communities, Fact sheet


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