The Dividing Line Between Good and Bad Density

Not all density is good, according to the participants at recent event hosted by the Congress for the New Urbanism’s District of Columbia chapter, and examples of new developments cross the line all over the world.

2 minute read

April 19, 2023, 12:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


A large, four-story apartment building is surrounded by grass and concrete walkways.

Lissandra Melo / Shutterstock

A recent gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s (CNU) District of Columbia featured a discussion of a hot topic in the world of planning: the value of density. According to a dispatch from the event, written by Philip Langdon, most of the participants agreed that not all density is an unequivocal benefit for communities.

Architect and chapter president Dhiru Thadani opened the Council—on ‘Density Without Urbanism/Urbanism Without Density’—by showing rows of high-rise apartment buildings stretching seemingly endlessly across China. ‘People are just being warehoused in large buildings,’ he reflected.

The panel identified examples of “bad” density in the United States, too, in the form of “mid-rise buildings sometimes pejoratively called ‘stumpies.’”

“The typical “stumpy” (the term seems to have originated in the press) consists of five stories of wood-framed apartments sitting atop a concrete podium often containing commercial space or enclosed parking at street level,” explains Langdon.

What’s wrong with stumpies, according to Langdon’s description? “Generally, the buildings lack architectural distinction. The exterior is frequently divided into many vertical segments, sometimes in contrasting materials or colors, in an attempt to make whole thing look less bulky and overwhelming. This fragmented esthetic dismays many city-lovers.”

New Urbanism offers a better middle ground for density, according to participants in the panel—a “goldilocks zone,” if you will. CNU President Mallory Baches pointed to New Urbanist developments for examples, including:

  • Del Mar Station in Pasadena, California, with 347 units on 3.4 acres, achieves a density of 102 dwelling units per acre.
  • Paseo Verde in North Philadelphia, with 120 units on 1.9 acres, 63.2 units per acre.
  • Storrs Center in Connecticut, with 668 units on 47.7 acres, has 14 units per acre.
  • Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Oregon, with 2,394 units on 150 acres, has 16 units per acre. 

Langdon also recalls Jane Jacobs’ calculation of the ideal density for urban environments, suggesting that “the ideal big-city density is somewhere between 100 and 200 net dwellings per acre.”

There is a lot more to read and ponder about the ideal manifestations of density at the source article linked below.

Monday, April 17, 2023 in Public Square: A CNU Journal

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