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

Satalite image of a bright green lake surrounded by brownish-green land

California’s Largest Natural Lake Turns Green With … Algae

A potentially toxic algal bloom has turned Clear Lake in Northern California bright green, fed by increased runoff from human activity.

June 4, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

Three colorful, large beachfront homes, one khaki, one blue, and one yellow, with a small dune in front and flat sand in foreground.

Florida Homeowners 'Nope Out' of Beach Restoration Over Public Access

The U.S. Corps of Engineers and Redington Shores, Florida are at a standstill: The Corps won’t spend public money to restore private beaches, and homeowners are refusing to grant public access to the beaches behind their home in return for federal assistance.

June 7, 2024 - Grist

Multistory apartment building under construction.

New Tennessee Law Allows No-Cost Incentives for Affordable Housing

Local governments in the Volunteer State can now offer developers incentives like increased density, lower parking requirements, and priority permitting for affordable housing projects.

June 10, 2024 - Nooga Today

Three men riding recumbent bikes on paved greenway next to bayou with Houston skyline in background.

Houston Developers Question Mayor’s Stance on Pedestrian Projects

The new mayor’s reversal of road safety projects, some already underway or completed, is raising eyebrows among developers who say residents want walkable, mixed-use streets.

1 hour ago - Houston Chronicle

Cambridge Kendall Square skyline and MBTA red line train on Longfellow Bridge aerial view, Boston, Massachusetts MA, USA.

MBTA Budget Inadequate for Key Projects

Without additional funding, the agency is ‘barely treading water’ and could be forced to make service cuts in 2026.

2 hours ago - Route Fifty

Walkway at San Gabriel River Park.

From Duck Farm to Parkland

The opening of the San Gabriel River Park expands access to green spaces for residents in the San Gabriel Valley, especially for Avocado Heights and other park-poor communities in the area.

June 12 - San Gabriel Valley Tribune

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.