Density is Not the Problem!

Neighbors oppose Orem UVU housing project, say it’s too dense!

Residents object to Cottonwood Mall site redevelopment because it’s too dense, claim it doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood, or even of the city!

Citizens raise serious concerns over proposed Olympia Hills development west of Herriman, threaten referendum vote due to “unprecedented high densities which would overwhelm roads, schools, neighborhoods!”

Utah is (once again!) experiencing rapid population and economic growth.  As planners, planning commissioners and local elected officials well know, new development to accommodate growth usually engenders questions, concerns, and downright opposition from neighbors and community residents.  In almost every case, the objections are voiced over density, or the number of residential units per acre, in these new developments. Frequently these concerns come from those who live in areas of relatively low density, such as neighborhoods of single-family homes on large lots.

Experience shows, however, that when residents express such concerns, they are generally opposed to virtually any new development in their area.  At the very least, new development should pretty much look just like their own existing neighborhoods, or should even be homes that are bigger, on lots that are bigger, than their own!

Density is a complex concept, as any urban planner or architect will tell you.  Citizens, however, use the term as a “straw man” as they oppose new development, equating “density” with negative consequences for the community.  In emotional public meetings, such words lose their real meaning. George Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, said about those with a particular agenda: “they use words to eradicate the complexity of reality.”

Density is a concept that tells you something about a development project or neighborhood, but is only one of a variety of factors that go into the mix of making a place.  For example, one neighborhood may have very low density, but also has nothing else – no parks, no schools, no grocery store, no offices. The residents of this neighborhood thus need to leave it to do just about anything, making lots of trips each day.

Another neighborhood may have high density, but it also has a park, a school, a grocery store, an office complex adjacent, a performing arts center nearby.  The residents of this neighborhood can live day to day without having to make nearly so many trips to other areas.

Which neighborhood has the greater impact on the surrounding community?

Another thing to think about – while we are growing at an increasing pace, we are starting to run out of places to grow in to!  By some estimates, Salt Lake County has only about 30,000 acres of vacant, developable land remaining. At 2 units per gross acre (typical of single family homes on large lots), that’s room for about 80,000 new homes, or about 240,000 people.  Our current population growth rate will fill that up in less than 30 years. Then what? Are we going to stop growing? What happens to all the kids those new residents will continue to have?

Not only that, all the “easy” land to develop has pretty much been built on.  The areas now remaining have challenges, not the least of which is how to connect these far out areas to the rest of the metropolitan area.

Again, experience in other areas around the country can show us what could happen here.  As construction of new housing slows down, whether that’s due to running low on available land, or because residents try to slow down new development, the housing supply for those new people looking for places to live is restricted.  The demand for housing starts to exceed the supply, and lo, the cost of housing goes up! To see an extreme example of this, look at the San Francisco Bay area over the past decade or so. Housing costs there have increased by about 5.4% per year.  A median priced home there now stands at about $1,257,000!

This dynamic is beginning to play out in Utah!  Housing costs here during this decade have increased dramatically, as we now have more people wanting to buy homes than are being built to meet that demand.

So what do we do? We need to rethink how we grow – what kinds of housing, where jobs and services locate, how we get around.  It’s change! It’s different from what we are used to. And for most people, change is not comfortable – it’s different! It’s unknown!  And yet – if we don’t accept some change, we may get a whole different kind of change that we won’t like – high housing costs, increasing costs to commute and travel (both in dollar terms and in time spent), increasing costs of services.

We need to think about building on those remaining undeveloped properties more densely – to provide more housing for all those new people coming, without substantially driving up costs. We need to develop those areas with more jobs centers and service centers and recreation areas, so people won’t need to travel outside their neighborhoods or communities as much, and thereby reduce the impact to all of us from rapidly increasing traffic congestion. And those more dense residential neighborhoods? It’s all about design! We need to make sure that our development standards and incentives accommodate, even mandate, better design.

It’s a solution to growth that we can –  we must! – live with!

Wilf Sommerkorn is an urban planner who has worked along the Wasatch Front for some 38 years.  He is active in political and legislative issues regarding growth and development.