Infill is Standard Operating Procedure

The U.S. Bureau of the Census is producing new data that shows how infill development is affecting urban areas. Wendell Cox says that the new data shows that infill has been happening since 1960 with or without mandates.

"[I]nfill has been going on for years, along with suburbanization, both in the United States and in other first world nations. This is indicated by the general densification trend that occurred in US urban areas between 1990 and 2000 and the longer term densification trends that occurred in a number of southwestern urban areas, such as Los Angeles, San Jose, Riverside-San Bernardino, Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth and Las Vegas. All these traditionally 'sprawling' areas have, in fact, been densifying since 1960 or before. Since 2000, 33 of the nation's 37 urban areas with a population exceeding 1,000,000 population experienced population infill to their 2000 urban footprints."

Full Story: Special Report: Infill in US Urban Areas




well if you look at it that way, infill has been happening since the first cities thousands of years ago.

more of cox's artistic liberties with the numbers to paint them out in a convenient way to push his agenda

Define Infill

Leap frog development occurs where urban development skips over empty land and creates a less continuous urban fabric. . . . Infill occurs as land that has been “leaped” over is subsequently purchased for development.

As shown by the above, Cox uses a loose definition of infill in this article. Any land that lies between two developed areas, whether those areas were developed 50 years ago or yesterday, could be considered infill if developed today, as far as the article is concerned. That's not, I think, what the "urban planning community" considers infill. The urban planning community seems to believe that infill happens when development takes place on vacant or underutilized lands in more established areas and when the development is not just the same old sprawl but makes more efficient use of the land with a sense of good design for the development's residents and users. That seems to me like a more accurate (though rough) and more common definition of "infill" than what Cox uses.

Using Cox's definition, however, we shouldn't be surprised that the Phoenixes, Houstons, and Atlantas experienced substantial "infill" and population-densification -- less dense and more sprawling areas simply have much inward space available for growth. Little surprise there.

More on Infill

I don't think it's Cox who is twisting terms like infill, in this case, or sprawl in others. Look them up in the dictionary and you will see "sprawl" is just spread, so urban sprawl is not necessarily the 73 things the "urban planning community" doesn't like about the built environment. Likewise, infill, literally, really would be development in between two developed parcels or neighborhoods in the same metro area. The comments are certainly correct within the framework of the currently accepted urban planning philosophies, but who is really twisting definitions? Right or wrong, I don't think it's Cox who is taking artistic license on terminology. You don't have to stop with these two either - "smart growth", "sustainable development", "unplanned communities", "auto-dependent", - urban planning has a lot of nonsensical, nonliteral, oxymoronic, pejorative nomenclature. That may seem intuitive to folks in the profession, but Cox's audience is not targeting the profession.


If his audience is not urban planners, then it's the public-policy types, who are closely related to the planners, especially on urban planning topics. And I'm not sure they would accept Cox's loose definition of "infill," either. Maybe the way the planners use the word is not be strictly the dictionary definition of the word (or is it?), but, the way Cox uses it, any outward growth could count as infill, as long as it's preceded by at least a little farther-outward growth. That's pretty unremarkable "infill."

"Look, low-regulation cities do infill, too, and more" seems to be his point, but it's not very persuasive if "infill" includes so much near-fringe, low-density development as to be almost meaningless. Remember, "infill" begins with "in."

why not persuasive?

is the more senior goal of land use development to be closer to the historical central city downtown/CBD or closer to the greatest concentration of jobs/services? If Houston gets redeveloped sites just outside the inner beltway near the Galleria/Westchase, is that not "good infill" because there was sprawl developed outside of it 20 years ago? If both potential developments in either location lead to a more compact metro, less "virgin" property development, and possibly reduced driving, isn't that really the point? I've seen "great infill" development in San Francisco that was masterful in getting additional people to reverse commute to Silicon Valley. Your entire context of "in" seems to be based on a strong downtown/weak bedroom-like suburb paradigm which doesn't seem to exist much anymore. If a large company locates their offices closer to more of their employees in a more remote suburb, that would seem like more of a logical infill than many of the contrived, subsidized, older sites in central cities. I think it just depends and I think Cox's use of the term and point has some validity.

Not Very Revealing

I'm not talking about "good" and "bad" infill but rather the "so what" factor. He's watered down the definition of infill so that it applies to more types of development than what is usually identified as infill.

If development occurs at 8 miles from a city center, then at 7.5 miles, then at 9 miles, then at 8.5 miles, then at 10, then at 9.5, and so forth, that sounds in effect like the same old outward growth that typically happens, and it's not really that interesting. But by the article's logic, this could be labeled "infill" (see paragraph 7) because development has taken place within the gaps. Even if the city had hundreds of contiguous buildable acres near its center just sitting there, ready for infill, not being used for anything, not even parkland, that outward growth would still be called "infill" under Cox's definition merely by virtue of the sequence in which the land was developed.

If that's infill, why bother talking about it? It doesn't seem to be anything special, just the same old thing, but with the steps slightly out of order. So I don't consider this article's discussion of infill really worthwhile.

On the other hand, Cox's discussion of densification is a bit more substantial. Maybe the article should have been about that and not infill, because the talk of density is a bit more revealing. That said, not much more revealing. The cities with greater inward growth in population were less-dense cities with room inside to grow; the cities with less inward growth (or with population loss) were already-dense cities with not much room left (or they were Rust Belt).

So, either this article is revealing not much in a lot of words or I'm overlooking something important.

Prepare for the AICP Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $199
Planetizen Courses image ad

Planetizen Courses

Advance your career with subscription-based online courses tailored to the urban planning professional.
Starting at $14.95 a month

Stay thirsty, urbanists

These sturdy water bottles are eco-friendly and perfect for urbanists on the go.
Red necktie with map of Boston

Tie one on to celebrate your city

Choose from over 20 styles of neckties imprinted with detailed city or transit maps.