Two Things People Hate: Density and Sprawl

We've been conducting public meetings for years. And it used to be easier. Present the plan. Discuss the plan. Talk about how your plan is better for the neighborhood/community/city/region and provide the conclusion. But things have changed.  

When did the public become planning experts? People appear at public meetings and talk about density and land use. They know how many units per acre are good and bad. Of course, they tend to be wrong, as they do not discuss design. Still, public meetings have become the forum for the public to debate density with experienced planners and designers.  

Recently we were in a contentious public workshop with a community, developer, and planning commission, focusing on a ten-acre site between a large public park and single family neighborhood. The logical approach is to have higher density across from the park and transition to a few stories next to the neighborhood. Or so we thought. Instead, the community wound up in a heated discussion about density. A height of five stories at a density of 25 was scoffed at as much too dense-next to a 40-acre park that the city is spending 40M$ on acquiring and improving and refers to as their "central park."  

Density has become a four-letter word. But mention sprawl and the public scoffs at the lack of sustainability. And they can't have it both ways. The discussion needs to be about design and sustainability.  

My old favorite assignment for students was to find out the allowable FAR in major cities. As I recall, at that time the FAR in Atlanta was among the highest in the northern hemisphere. Students thought FAR was by far higher in Manhattan. Not so then. My new favorite assignment is to show photos and ask students to describe the density. Good design does not illustrate density. Density is a relative term that describes quantity, not quality. It is design that will make or break a project.  

By now you've figured out that nothing bothers me more in a public meeting than a debate on density. Neighbors in an Atlanta neighborhood with a density of about four units per acre argue that they have traffic issues and need light rail before there can be more development in the city. When we tell them they need a density of 15 to 20 per acre for transit, they cringe. It is not density and sprawl that is their issue-it is good and bad design. We have to change the conversation.

Barbara Faga, FASLA, is a principal and executive vice president of EDAW, an international landscape design and planning firm.



Amen, Sister!

I share the frustration.

This is part of a larger phenomenon whereby the public wants all that is "good" and nothing that is "bad." "Free" healthcare, more public transit, better roads, unlimited driving ability, mortgage bailouts, social security, a "living" wage, the list goes on. But wait! Also demanded are low consumer prices, lower taxes, lower gas prices, and another long list of perks made improbable (if not impossible) by the first list.

Take an economics class, people!

The notion that resources are by nature scarce, and that choices and tradeoffs must be made, is missing from the discourse. It's tempting to explain that this is due to our being in an election year, but, unfortunately, it's true more and more of the time.

Here, I'd paraphrase a terrific quote on governance and choice to say "To plan is to choose."


You are my density.

We don't have a density problem, we have a design problem. IMHO some folks need to see some decent examples and many will come around. Certain ideologies never will, and some life stages have different needs, but enough will come around.




I completely agree dano.

I really believe if you ask the average person on the street what image comes to mind with the word "density", their response will most certainly be very tall Manhattan housing or the 'projects'. Both of these emphasize through their design repetition, the sense that the inhabitants are insignificant, no community or any sense of place or character.

Yet I truely believe a very large number of these same exact people would love to live in a historic brownstone or a victorian era streetcar-suburb type neighborhood of single family houses that are quite close together with a huge canopy of mature trees looming over the street.

The point is density doesnt have to mean a 100-story filing cabinet for humans, it can be those beautiful and enjoyable streetscapes that people love to see and be a part of when they visit Europe.

Average people do not want density - period!

"Yet I truely believe a very large number of these same exact people would love to live in a historic brownstone or a victorian era streetcar-suburb type neighborhood of single family houses that are quite close together with a huge canopy of mature trees looming over the street."

If that's what the average person on the street wanted, that's what homebuilders would be building. A few builders are doing so. But the demand for such housing is minuscule compared to the demand for single family detached homes on 7,500 sq ft lots. Where land is available, homebuyers overwhelmingly choose low-density housing.

Planners need to wake up to the reality of consumer desires.

Average surveys disagree comma.

Where land is available, homebuyers overwhelmingly choose low-density housing. Planners need to wake up to the reality of consumer desires.

All the surveys I see state that the "reality" of "consumer desires" is not uniform. 1/3 - 1/2 of those surveyed don't want large-lot single-fam in the middle of nowhere with nothing to walk to. Further, demographic shifts indicate that the "reality" of "consumer desires" in the future is that fewer "realities" will be expressed on the ground, as only ~25% of the market will be the demograpic that wants large-lot SFD. That is: "average" people like Donna Reed and Ward Cleaver are not the "average" these days.

See, antiquated zoning laws drive what "homebuilders would be building". The NU-TND developments usually sell out and get bid up because of the "reality of consumer desires", despite critics pooh-poohing them for being too expensive.




Show me the surveys from the south and midwest and west

Dano, can you provide any links to such surveys about the "reality" of consumer desires?

The idea that only 25% of Americans will desire large lot, single family dwelling housing is silly. The migration of a few households away from sprawled suburbs is a tiny fraction of the number of new homes being purchased in the far suburbs of southern and western cities. The American suburban dream is very much alive.

The claim about "antiquated zoning laws" is also incorrect in my part of the nation. The zoning laws that discourage or prohibit high density housing in the suburbs are exactly what voters continue to demand. Larger cities such as Dallas allow high density development, and a few developers build it. But home buyers overwhelming want detached houses and sizable yards, and seek these out in the suburbs.

Surveys and demographic trends.

Newer, better, more pragmatic sprawl-commute analyses notwithstanding, we've discussed such surveys here many times. In fact, many have discussed them in many places as they are well known in the planning, real estate and development professions. Nonetheless, I'll back my claim 1, 2, 3*.

And if you think the 25% demand idea is silly, then you need to publish "your" "findings" and data and analyses ASAP and bring down - Galileo-like - the biased academic, demographic and research elite because their demographic trend conclusions disagree with the ideology.

Anyway, these boilerplate ideological arguments about sprawl & choice have been refuted many many times, ad nauseum. Repeating them doesn't make them true. They do not withstand scrutiny. They have all been asked and answered, addressed, refuted, put to bed and tucked in.



* "The data overall demonstrate a significant mismatch between people’s preferences and the choices that are actually available. Individuals’ preferences are distributed along a continuum from transit- and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods to auto-oriented neighborhoods. In most cases, the preferences of the average residents are close to the center of that continuum-though on the issue of space for cars versus space for cyclists and pedestrians, the average respondent holds distinct “smart growth” opinions. But in all cases, the average individuals feel that they live in neighborhoods that are more autooriented than their preferences.


The results of this study suggest that where these restrictions are relaxed and
smart-growth options are planned for proactively, the significant unmet demand for these options among residents of metropolitan Atlanta will lead to ready market acceptance for a richer neighborhood and housing mix than Atlanta currently offers. (pg 38)"

Two things

I agree wholeheartedly with Barbara’s observations. I apologize in advance if I am repeating anything said so far. I have not read through all the replies (I will). I read extensively on all things planning and found a book a few years back called "Sprawl Kills" to be a real eye opener. The gist: while in our heart of hearts greater density & good design is what we want, we are not being given this option. The author presents various explanations (many commonly know by those familar w/ the topic) as to why this mismatch (of needs & desires to housing options) exists. I found one explanation to be fasinating and original. He opines that those with profit motives for perpetuating the sprawl model have managed to convince the public that this is their desire. What's more, they have gotten the public to do their dirty work by pushing this agenda with local officials. The "sprawl shills," as he refers to them, have helped arm the public with arguments and language that counters arguments for good design and density. These arguments play on typical fears, such as loss of options (ironic, given that this is opposite to what the market provides) and government control of personal decisions; so on & so forth (especially the growth/ tax-base myth...counter argument-all growth is not equal). These arguments and this language is so absolute and polarizing that it shuts down any reasonable discussion. The smart-growth counter arguments to this "sprawl speak" are nuanced requiring thoughtful discussion, and dare I say some education. This is not something that can be achieved in a typical public meeting. Not sure if there is an easy answer other than pushing thoughtful people to take a greater role in public life and to above all vote with their feet.

Many People Do Want Density, Period

"If that's what the average person on the street wanted, that's what homebuilders would be building."

Dewey: You obviously haven't read the recent article in the Atlantic which shows that home prices are much higher per square foot in walkable neighborhoods. Eg, a condo in downtown White Plains, NY, costs twice as much per square foot as a house in a nearby sprawl suburb.

So, why aren't homebuilders building more condos in walkable neighborhoods, which would obviously be more profitable than sprawl homes? Two obvious reasons:

-Zoning laws generally require low densities, and there are relatively few locations where it is legal to build walkable neighborhoods.

-Federal and state transportation funding has gone overwhelmingly to freeways rather than transit, and it is very difficult to build a walkable neighborhood around a freeway offramp.

Sprawl is the result of government policy as much as of consumer demand, and government has pushed us so far toward sprawl that there is not a large amount of pent-up consumer demand for walkable neighborhoods (which is why they charge a price premium).

This should also answer your other post about why planners want to build rail, when buses are a more flexible way of getting around dispersed cities. It is not pleasant to ride a bus around a dispersed city, but it is pleasant to live in a walkable neighborhood around a rail stop. Building rail and TOD around the stops would let more people live in the sort of neighborhood that they want to live in.

Charles Siegel

Most people vote, with their dollars, for sprawl

Charles Siegel, to answer one point, I rode an express bus from a far Houston suburb into the central business district for a couple of years. It was a pleasant experience for me and for the thousands of other bus transit commuters. Your opinion about the pleasantness of bus rides is just an opinion.

Sprawl is exactly what people in Texas and Tennessee and Oklahoma and Arizona have chosen for decades. I'm fairly certain it is being chosen all over the nation. Government policy reflects consumer demand. Developers continue to petition local suburban governments for more high density housing, and are consistently met with opposition from voters.

So-called "walkable" neighborhoods are anything but that. They rarely have the populations to attract supermarkets and the desired variety of specialty retail. Such high density neighborhoods exist throughout the Dallas metro area. On weekends these neighborhoods are heavily congested with vehicle traffic moving in and out. Residents must travel miles to reach the variety of shopping that they prefer.

Costs per square foot comparisons between geographically distinct suburbs, and different size and quality housing units, are irrelevant and likely misleading.

Voting With Dollars

Costs per square foot comparisons between geographically distinct suburbs, and different size and quality housing units, are irrelevant

They are quite relevant to developers' decisions about what they want to build. If you can get twice as much per square foot by building condos as by building single-family housing on the same site, then developers will build condos - unless they are stopped by government policy. These cost comparisons are for sites just a few miles from each other, the only difference being their zoning and their transit accessibility.

"Government policy reflects consumer demand. Developers continue to petition local suburban governments for more high density housing, and are consistently met with opposition from voters.

NIMBY opposition to projects says nothing at all about whether there is consumer demand for those projects. NIMBYs would vote down higher density housing developments in most towns Westchester county, but the success of downtown White Plains shows that there is plenty of consumer demand for high-density housing there.

If you really believed in people voting with their dollars, you would be against these political interferences with the market.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

No, government policy does NOT reflect consumer demand

Mr. Dewey says "government policy reflects consumer demand." This argument doesn't persuade me for a couple of reasons.

First, if there was no difference between markets and politics, there would be no difference between socialism (allocation of wealth by government) and capitalism (allocation of wealth by markets)- obviously an absurd result.

In particular, government allocation of resources means that a majority makes the decisions- that 51% of the consumers make decisions, and the other 49% might as well be dead. By contrast, under market allocation of resources there is (in Milton Friedman's words) "unanimity without conformity"- that is, minority tastes can be served as well as majority tastes.

So even if the land use status quo reflects the view of a majority of consumers, it probably does not the desires of as many consumers as would a more free-market system (i.e. one without the NIMBY veto).

Second, the voters making land use decisions are not the same as all consumers. Consumers who wish to live in a suburb [or city neighborhood] are simply not the same group as the voters deciding land use decisions. So for example, suppose 60% of the voters in suburb X want no new development, but most consumers outside that suburb would like to live in suburb X. In that situation, a no-new-development policy would not reflect consumer demand at all. Essentially, SOME consumers would be making decisions that affect ALL consumers.

And finally, bringing it down to "sprawl vs. compact development:" residents of compact areas are, I suspect, just as likely to be NIMBYs as residents of sprawl. Does that mean they oppose compact development? No, because they chose to live in it. Instead, their NIMBYism reflects the fact that they don't want other people to have what they have. This conflict over resources suggests not that consumers DON'T demand compact development, but instead that there are more people who WANT compact development than can have it under today's political system.

To put it another way, NIMBYs are sellers of housing. The people who might live in the new development that the NIMBYs oppose are consumers of housing. Since the sellers and the buyers don't always have the same interest, it makes no sense to say that the sellers' decisions [as implemented by obedient politicians] reflect the buyers' demands.

I'm confused.


Wait a minute, you said "Developers continue to petition local suburban governments for more high density housing"...but you also said "If [higher-density housing is] what the average person on the street wanted, that's what homebuilders would be building."

So, which is it? Do homebuilders want to build high density housing? Or don't they?

And if "developers continue to petition local suburban governments for more high density housing", I would think there must be a market for it.

Changing the Conversation...

Well said Barbara, I fully agree.

But as you've suggested, changing that conversation from density to design can be difficult -- despite Google Sketch-up and other new user-friendly tools, "design" remains a technical expertise that can make community participants feel helpless.

Another strategy that gets at design in a roundabout way through consultation is to shift that conversation from density to livability or density to sustainability. This way, a process of visioning, education and consultation stages will lead to practical design solutions that must accomodate the required density to achieve the identified livability or sustainability objectives.

Simply focusing on good design might make density easier to sell, but it doesn't necessarily change those low-density expectations. If those expectations are changed early in the process by focusing on required densities to achieve environmental or health benefits, planners can introduce density as a tool rather than a result.

One good example called EcoDensity is underway in Vancouver, BC ( The Province of Ontario is also pushing the conversation in that direction with its Places to Grow plans (

Density & Design Where Can I Get Me Some?

Good article. Many people do indeed encounter good design and density, sometimes even twice a year. Anyone who has taken a vacation to say, Europe, has probably seen a very dense city or town and beautiful design. Venice, Amsterdam, Carcasonne, etc.. Heck, even here in the states, Savannah, Charleston, West Village, North Side of Boston.

These are all pedestrian first, fine grained areas. William Whyte, Jane Jacobs, and Kevin Lynch all have written extensively on the subject.

As long as we design with the car at the forefront, we'll never achieve density or decent design. Why design for folks enclosed in their pod, listening to music speeding along at 20mph to 70mph? Its a waste of time, money and effort. How do you allow for cars to move thru a space designed for pedestrians? The answer is you can't.

If we could only highlight the worlds successful dense areas for people considering dense TOD development, we might get somewhere. Ask folks, who've been to the worlds great cities and towns, why they liked it. Why did they spend thousands of dollars, use up valuable vacation time, and why do they return? Then, why can't you have that where you live?

Do people hate sprawl? I don't think so.

If people truly hated sprawl, why would families continue to buy homes in the far suburbs? Why would corporations continue moving workplaces to those suburbs?

If the price of gasoline doubles - or even triples - how will suburbanitesa cope? Few will give up suburban living. Most will adopt these tactics:

- buy extremely fuel efficient vehicles;
- carpool where possible;
- move workplaces closer to homes, either by finding a closer suburban job or a closer suburban home;
- telecommute as much as possible.

Very few will choose denser living. From what I've read, even the Europeans are choosing suburban living:

"Copenhagen ,Liverpool , Manchester and Glasgow all lost about 40 percent of their population to the suburbs in the past 40 years compared to 45 percent in Detroit and Cleveland, 39 percent in Newark and 32 percent in Washington."

European Sprawl

"Most American tourists spend their time visiting historic city centers, so they may be unaware that suburbs now constitute the bulk of European metropolitan areas, just as they do in America."

Is urban sprawl an American problem?

Sprawl - the dispersion of both homes and workplaces - has allowed many more workers to live closer to jobs in the type housing they desire.

Michael Lewyn's picture

European argument overlooks recent history

It is true that European cities did suburbanize to some extent in the late 20th century, though not as to much of an extent as American cities.

But if you look more closely at the last decade or so, the tide is turning. European cities are regaining population, transit use is rising, etc. just as in America- but these changes are more stunning in Europe, because they are in the context of nations with stagnant population. [I briefly discussed this issue at
but am working on something longer on the issue]

Two Things Animals Hate: Density and Sprawl

...and with good reason. No one in the MSM is talking about the mass extinctions we are facing - more than at any time in history since the ice age. Most would chalk it up to Climate Change, but the largely untold truth is that industrialization, overpopulation and sprawl are compromising and destroying fragile ecosystems. I know we are a very self absorbed species, but I would love to hear what planners, designers and architects think about solutions that take nature as seriously as human nature.

art about the environment

So.. its a year later

The original project was described as "A height of five stories at a density of 25 was scoffed at as much too dense—next to a 40-acre park that the city is spending 40M$ on acquiring and improving and refers to as their “central park.”"

Barbara, so now it is 12 months later....

What would be the concrete thing to say?

Sprawl vs. density is a false choice

Sprawl vs. density is a false choice -- though I agree the answer can be found in design, I really don't see anyone who poses this question, including the author of this post, offering fresh designs that incorporate ecological features into urban projects.

Instead, current residents are denigrated (again, see the author), and the neighborhood takes the hit.

When urban infill defaults to the very conventional 'urbanism' that drove people into the suburbs in the first place, there's a big, big problem.

When urban infill defaults to the same suburban-style development projects that defile everyone's sensibility, and led to espread condemnation of crappy suburban landscapes, then there's a big, big problem.

If residential neighborhoods are to give way to denser cities, then the projects proposed will have to be an improvement --- combinging the livable and functional aspects of urbanism with high-quality ecological features prized by folks across the urban-rural gradient.

It's not 'green' unless there's actual green vegetation. The fallacy that density is good enough, or that density is a well thought-out quality objective in and of itself, will do an enormous amount of damage if we're not careful.

Density seems to be the default for those urbanists who don't know what else to do. It's as though, lacking the imagination to envision authentically great civic spaces or truly livable architecture, and too obtuse to listen to what current residents are telling them, they just sort of resort to dumping whatever they've been taught---whatever hasn't worked for the past 75 years --- into these individual projects, anyway.

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