Density Skepticism and Neighborhood Protection

Resistance mounts to the zoning reforms gaining traction in the United States.

3 minute read

April 16, 2021, 6:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Urban Infill

Paul Sableman / Flickr

For the past several months, much of the news regarding planning and zoning in the United States has focused on reform efforts designed to loosen the restrictions of single-family and exclusionary zoning.

Count the city that invented single-family zoningBerkeley, California—among the local jurisdictions to follow the lead of the city of Minneapolis in moving forward with the idea of allowing new forms of density in residential neighborhoods as a prescription for the racial segregation of zoning's history and the increasing cost of housing in contemporary times. The idea of reform is also catching on at the state level, such as in Oregon and Connecticut, as well as the federal level, where the Biden administration and bipartisan legislation in the Senate have proposed funding for cities looking to add housing supply by removing zoning restrictions.

Amidst this context, which threatens to overturn a status quo that has governed the use and development of land in the United States for more than a century, some voices in the media are voicing concern about the consequences of a more permissible approach to development density.

In Atlanta, for instance, Bob Irvin writes to oppose changes included in a package of reforms proposed by Mayor Keisha Bottoms as the Atlanta City Design: Housing initiative. Irvin's argument voices support for zoning thusly:

I do know what zoning does now. It protects homeowners of all races and economic levels. It protects their neighborhoods. It protects their families. It protects their largest investment. It protects their lifestyle. It protects our city.

In another article, Philadelphia Inquirer Architecture Critic Inga Saffron scrutinizes two controversial development proposals, producing this verdict: "one is going about creating density the right way, and the other is doing it all wrong." To frame the argument about the potential drawbacks of density, Saffron suggests that NIMBYs and YIMBYs are "mirror images, absolutists who see the world in stark black and white."

"It’s not unusual to hear YIMBYs declare that neighborhood character is irrelevant. They insist that any new apartment building is a blow for justice, no matter how grotesque its design. They seem incapable of understanding that it’s deeply human to care about what our surroundings look like. Context and details matter, and that’s why it’s worth examining these two midrise projects if we hope to win the hearts and minds of density skeptics," writes Saffron, allowing for more sympathy for the zoning reform cause than expressed by Irvin while also reclaiming the cause of neighborhood protection.

Saffron and Irvin aren't the only writers trying to slow the momentum of pro-development zoning reforms. Pierluigi Olivero, a member of the San Jose Planning Commission and a former San Jose City Councilman, also recently wrote an opinion piece suggesting that the idea of ending single-family zoning is too extreme. The city of Cleveland is also currently embroiled in controversy over the unintended consequences of zoning changes that allowed new townhome developments in residential developments. 

Monday, April 5, 2021 in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Large blank mall building with only two cars in large parking lot.

Pennsylvania Mall Conversion Bill Passes House

If passed, the bill would promote the adaptive reuse of defunct commercial buildings.

April 18, 2024 - Central Penn Business Journal

Rendering of wildlife crossing over 101 freeway in Los Angeles County.

World's Largest Wildlife Overpass In the Works in Los Angeles County

Caltrans will soon close half of the 101 Freeway in order to continue construction of the Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing near Agoura Hills in Los Angeles County.

April 15, 2024 - LAist

Workers putting down asphalt on road.

U.S. Supreme Court: California's Impact Fees May Violate Takings Clause

A California property owner took El Dorado County to state court after paying a traffic impact fee he felt was exorbitant. He lost in trial court, appellate court, and the California Supreme Court denied review. Then the U.S. Supreme Court acted.

April 18, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

View from back of BART Police SUV driving down street in San Francisco, California.

Podcast: Addressing the Root Causes of Transit Violence

Deploying transit police is a short-term fix. How can transit agencies build sustainable safety efforts?

52 minutes ago - Streetsblog USA

Sunset view of downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota skyline.

Minneapolis as a Model for Housing Affordability

Through a combination of policies, the city has managed to limit the severity of the nationwide housing crisis.

1 hour ago - Brown Political Review

Row of yellow Pacers Bikeshare bikes at station in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana.

Indy Bikeshare System Turns 10, Expands to E-Bikes

Pacers Bikeshare riders logged over 700,000 rides since the system launched in 2014.

2 hours ago - Indy Today

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.