Higher-Density Development

Myth and Fact

America is not only growing but also undergoing dramatic demographic changes. The traditional two-parent household with children is now less than a quarter of the population and getting proportionally smaller. Single-parent households, single-person households, empty nesters, and couples without children make up the new majority of American households, and they have quite different real estate needs.2 These groups are more likely to choose higher-density housing in mixed-density communities that offer vibrant neighborhoods over single-family houses far from the community core.

Arguably, no tool is more important than increasing the density of existing and new communities, which includes support for infill development, the rehabilitation and reuse of existing structures, and denser new development.

For many suburban communities, the popular mixed-use town centers being developed around the country are considered higher-density development.

Many have also come to appreciate the “place-making” benefits of density and the relationship between higher-density development and land preservation. Media coverage of the topic of growth and development has also evolved. Past media coverage of growth and development issues was often limited to the heated conflicts between developers and community residents. Many in the media are now presenting more thoughtful and balanced coverage, and several editorial boards support higher-density developments in their communities as an antidote to regional sprawl.

Yet despite the growing awareness of the complexity of the issue and growing support for higher-density development as an answer to sprawl, many still have questions and fears related to higher-density development. How will it change the neighborhood? Will it make traffic worse? What will happen to property values? And what about crime? Ample evidence—documented throughout this publication—suggests that well-designed higher-density development, properly integrated into an existing community, can become a significant community asset that adds to the quality of life and property values for existing residents while addressing the needs of a growing and changing population.

Yet despite the growing awareness of the complexity of the issue and growing support for higher-density development as an answer to sprawl, many still have questions and fears related to higher-density development. How will it change the neighborhood? Will it make traffic worse? What will happen to property values? And what about crime? Ample evidence—documented throughout this publication—suggests that well-designed higher-density development, properly integrated into an existing community, can become a significant community asset that adds to the quality of life and property values for existing residents while addressing the needs of a growing and changing population.

Many people’s perception of higher-density development does not mesh with the reality. Studies show that when surveyed about higher-density development, those interviewed hold a negative view. But when shown images of higher-density versus lower-density development, people often change their perceptions and prefer higher density.

To some degree, these myths are the result of memories people have of the very high-density urban public housing projects of the 1960s and 1970s that have been subsequently deemed a failure. Somehow, the concept of density became associated with the negative imagery and social problems of depressed urban areas.

Even very-high-density housing can be practical, safe, and desirable. For example, the mixed-income apartments and condominiums or luxury high rises in New York and Chicago—some of the safest and most expensive housing in the country—prove that density does not equal an unsafe environment.

The purpose of this publication is to dispel the many myths surrounding higher density development and to create a new understanding of density that goes beyond simplistic negative connotations that overestimate its impact and underestimate its value. Elected officials, concerned citizens, and community leaders can use this publication to support well-designed and well-planned density that creates great places and great communities that people love.

Other books
  • Higher-Density Development: Myth and Fact is the sixth in a series of Urban Land Institute myth and fact booklets. The series is intended to clarify misconceptions surrounding growth and development. Other topics covered have included transportation, smart growth, urban infill housing, environment and development, and mixed-income housing.
  • Higher-Density Development: Myth and Fact examines widespread misconceptions related to higher-density development and seeks to dispel them with relevant facts and information. Although the benefits of higher-density development are often understated, so are the detrimental effects of low-density development. The advantages and drawbacks of higher-density development are compared throughout this publication with the alternative of low-density development. In the process, misconceptions regarding low-density development are also addressed.


Higher-density development overburdens public schools and other public services and requires more infrastructure support systems.

The nature of who lives in higher-density housing—fewer families with children—puts less demand on schools and other public services than low-density housing. Moreover, the compact nature of higher-density development requires less extensive infrastructure to support it.

  • Public officials across the country struggle to afford the infrastructure needed to support sprawling development. A recent study analyzing the costs of sprawl estimated that more than $100 billion in infrastructure costs could be saved over 25 years by pursuing better planned and more compact forms of development.6 The issue has transcended political parties and ideologies and has become an issue of basic fiscal responsibility.


  • Not only do local governments absorb much of the cost of more and more roadways, profoundly longer water and electrical lines, and much larger sewer systems to support sprawling development, they must also fund public services to the new residents who live farther and farther from the core community. These new residents need police and fire protection, schools, libraries, trash removal, and other services. Stretching all these basic services over ever-growing geographic areas places a great burden on local governments.


  • Unfortunately for local governments, a growing body of evidence shows that sprawling development often does not pay enough property tax to cover the services it requires. A study conducted for a suburban community outside Milwaukee found that public services for an average-price single-family house in that community cost more than twice as much as the property taxes paid by the homeowner.


  • One reason for the disparity between property tax revenue and the cost of public services is expenditures for public schools. Low-density suburbs and exurban areas generally attract families with more school-age children. In fact, single-family developments average 64 children for every 100 units, compared with only 21 children for every 100 units of garden apartments and 19 children for every 100 units of mid- to high-rise apartments.13 The reason is that multifamily housing attracts predominantly childless couples, singles, and empty nesters.


  • Apartments are also usually taxed at a higher commercial real estate tax rate,14 so a typical mixed-use development with retail, office, and apartments may subsidize the schools and other public services required by residents of low-density housing in the same community.


  • Another emerging body of research suggests that higher density development is an important component of economic development initiatives and helps attract new employers.


  • The economic development game has changed. Employers now follow the workers rather than the other way around. Therefore, communities that focus on providing a high quality of life with the energy and vitality created by urban centers will be much more likely to attract these highly prized, talented, and productive workers than communities of faceless sprawl.


  • Thus, introducing higher-density projects into a community will actually increase that community’s revenue without significantly increasing the infrastructure and public service burdens. Blending apartments into low-density communities can help pay for schools without drastic increases in the number of students. Diversifying housing options and adding amenities like shops and offices close by will improve the quality of life and attract businesses and people that will strengthen the community’s economic stability. Increasing density provides a real economic boost to the community and helps pay for the infrastructure and public services that everybody needs.



For shared parking. Higher-density development creates more regional traffic congestion and parking problems than low-density development.

Higher-density development generates less traffic than low-density development per unit; it makes walking and public transit more feasible and creates opportunities

  • Most people assume that higher-density development generates more traffic than low density development and that regional traffic will get worse with more compact development. In fact, the opposite is true.


  • And according to one study using data from the National Personal Transportation Survey, doubling density decreases the vehicle miles traveled by 38 percent.


  • Residents in higher-density housing make fewer and shorter auto trips than those living in low-density housing.25 Condominium and townhouse residents average 5.6 trips per day and apartment dwellers 6.3 car trips per day, compared with the ten trips a day averaged by residents of low-density communities.


  • Higher-density mixed-used developments also create efficiencies through shared parking. For example, office and residential uses require parking at almost exact opposite times. As residents leave for work, office workers return, and vice versa. In addition, structured parking becomes feasible only with higher-density developments.


Higher-density development leads to higher crime rates.

The crime rates at higher-density developments are not significantly different from those at lower-density developments.


  • Arizona researchers found that when police data are analyzed per unit, apartments actually create less demand for police services than a comparable number of single family houses.


  • One reason for the misperception that crime and density are related could be that crime reports tend to characterize multifamily properties as a single “house” and may record every visit to an apartment community as happening at a single house. But a multifamily property with 250 units is more accurately defined as 250 houses. To truly compare crime rates between multifamily properties and single-family houses, the officer would have to count each household in the multifamily community as the equivalent of a separate single-family household. When they do so, many find what the previous studies prove: that crime rates between different housing types are comparable.


  • Higher-density developments can actually help reduce crime by increasing pedestrian activity and fostering a 24-hour community that puts more “eyes on the street”34 at all times. Many residents say they chose higher-density housing specifically because they felt more secure there; they feel safer because there are more people coming and going, making it more difficult for criminals to act without being discovered.


  • With the emergence of better-quality designs, higher-density mixed-use development is an attractive and safe addition to a community, one that is increasingly attracting a professional constituency seeking safety features. In fact, the luxury segment is one of the fastest-growing components of the multifamily industry.



Higher-density development is environmentally more destructive than lower-density development.


Low-density development increases air and water pollution and destroys natural areas by paving and urbanizing greater swaths of land.

  • Low-density sprawl compromises the resources that are the core of the community’s economy and character.


  • Higher-density development offers the best solution to managing growth and protecting clean air and clean water. Placing new development into already urbanized areas that are equipped with all the basic infrastructure.


  • Eliminates the financial and environmental costs of stretching those services farther and farther out from the core community. Compact urban design reduces driving and smog and preserves the natural areas that are assets of the community.


  • Compact development can achieve a 30 percent reduction in runoff and an 83 percent reduction in water consumption compared with conventional suburban development.


  • Although a well-designed higher-density community offers residents a higher quality environment, poorly planned sprawl does the opposite. Because low-density sprawl gobbles up so much land through large-lot zoning.


  • Increasing density not only improves air and water quality and protects open space but also redirects investments to our existing towns and cities.


  • Mixed land uses give people the option to walk and bike to work, shops, restaurants, and entertainment.


Higher-density development is unattractive and does not fit in a low-density community.

Attractive, well-designed, and well-maintained higher-density development attracts good residents and tenants and fits into existing communities.

  • Across America, appealing higher-density mixed-use town centers have been wildly popular with the public. Lushly landscaped boulevards, fountains, and showcase architecture have created a sense of place in areas previously known only for faceless, uninteresting low-density development. The enduring appeal and desirability of older and more gracious higher-density neighborhoods—Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Beacon Hill and Back Bay in Boston, and Lincoln Park in Chicago—attest to the fact that some of the more desirable neighborhoods in America historically have been of higher density.


  • New urbanist movement.


  • Grew as many people came to miss the sense of community that was created by the mixed-density and mixed-use communities of the past. They realized that low-density subdivisions isolated their owners from their neighbors.


  • These new communities combine the best design ideas of the past with the modern conveniences of today to provide residents with what has been missing from many sprawling areas—a sense of community.


  • Design professionals are driven to produce projects that meet users’ demands, understand and respond to the context of a site, enhance its neighborhood, and are built to last.49 In fact, attendance at a recent American Institute of Architects–sponsored conference on density far surpassed expectations, speaking to the interest among land use professionals in addressing the design issues associated with density.


  • It is plausible that the high level of citizens’ opposition to density may be based on an outdated notion of what higher-density development looks like. A University of North Carolina study revealed that when given a choice between two attractively designed communities, one higher density and the other low density; the majority preferred the higher-density option.51 Other visual preference surveys confirm that there is an almost universal negative reaction to the visual appearance of commercial strip sprawl and an almost universal positive reaction to traditional town-like communities of the past, communities that almost invariably included a mix of densities and uses.




No one in suburban areas wants higher-density development.


Our population is changing and becoming increasingly diverse. Many of these households now prefer higher-density housing, even in suburban locations.

  • The notion is that the only people who want to live in higher-density areas are those who cannot afford a traditional house with a back yard or who want to live in the middle of the city.


  • This country’s population is changing, and so are its real estate preferences. These lifestyle changes have significant implications for suburban development. For the first time, there are more single-person households (26.4 percent) than married couple-with-children households (23.3 percent).53 The groups growing the fastest, people in their mid-20s and empty nesters in their 50s, are the groups most likely to look for an alternative to low-density, single-family housing.


  • Moreover, a national survey of homebuyers’ community preferences found that nearly three-quarters of all buyers prefer to live in a community where they can walk or bike to some destinations.


  • These surveys confirm that many people prefer the suburbs but want the amenities traditionally associated with cities, including living close to work.


  • Communities are being developed using the best concepts of traditional communities—smaller lots, a variety of housing types, front porches and sidewalks, shops and offices within walking distance.


  • Today’s real demographic and lifestyle changes are inspiring a return to traditional development styles that offer walkable, bikeable, and more dynamic communities that put residents closer to shops, offices, and parks.


Higher-density housing is only for lower-income households.

People of all income groups choose higher-density housing.

  • The luxury segment of the apartment market is also rapidly expanding. Most people are surprised to learn that 41 percent of renters say they rent by choice and not out of necessity.


  • Higher-density development can be a viable housing choice for all income groups and people in all phases of their lives.


  • Just starting careers, many are looking for the flexibility of apartment living to follow job opportunities.


  • Providing balanced housing options to people of all income groups is important to a region’s economic vitality.


  • As the problem of affordability worsens, workers on the lower end of the salary scale may move to more affordable cities, leaving a labor shortage in their wake. Such shortages make a region less desirable as an employment center. According to Price water house Coopers, access to a large and diverse labor pool is the most important factor in making corporate decisions on locations.61 Communities that do not provide housing for all income groups become less desirable corporate locations.
Source: https://theeastonfarm.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/21.06.21_-Urban-Land-Institute-Study.pdf