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The Many Benefits of Higher Density Development Patterns


By Dom Nozzi

Those who work in the fields of town planning and transportation are well aware of the overwhelming evidence that there are a great many significant benefits of higher density development patterns. Tragically, nearly all Americans believe higher densities destroy neighborhoods and overall quality of life.

Why this disconnect?

Because nearly all Americans are utterly dependent on car travel, and higher densities make car travel much more costly and much more inconvenient.

Given this, it is clear that car-dependent Americans have a vested interest in fighting against efforts to improve community quality of life. This helps explain why so many community problems persist throughout the nation.

suburbia vs walkable3

In my 40 years of academic work in town and transportation planning, I have found that research studies show repeatedly and clearly that higher-density community and neighborhood development patterns provide the following benefits:

More affordable housing. This is due to smaller house size, the smaller amounts of land owned, and the ability of the household to survive with a smaller number of (extremely expensive) household cars. This is because more compact development patterns allow people to engage in many daily tasks without needing to travel by car.

Less per capita car travelThis reduces per capita air emissions and the overall per capita carbon footprint.

More physically fit community. With higher per capita levels of walking, bicycling, and transit use, residents of higher-density communities tend to be much more physically fit and less obese. Higher-density places promote social capital, and higher social capital is shown by studies to promote happiness, health, and longevity.

More financially sound households. A century ago, transportation was about 1 to 2 percent of household costs. Today it is about 23 percent and rising. The average annual cost of each car owned by a household is approximately $10,000. Higher-density neighborhoods substantially reduce the need for car ownership, car use, and overall household transportation costs. In addition, higher-density communities provide households with more job opportunities.

Lower startup costs. As Jane Jacobs noted several decades ago, higher-density town centers provide significantly lower capital startup costs for a small business. For example, it is much more financially viable for an individual to sell cooked food from a cart on a dense street corner than for an individual to buy or lease a restaurant building to sell cooked food.

More neighborhood-based (and smaller) retail. Only higher densities make smaller, neighborhood-based, locally-owned shops financially feasible. Lower-density communities tend to only be able to financially support franchise stores or large-format retail stores that draw customers from a regional consumer-shed.

More neighborly. Higher-density neighborhoods promote sociability. Lower-density neighborhoods promote isolation and suspicion.

Slower speed. Healthy cities are slower in speed, as slower speeds promote retail and residential health. And significantly reduces traffic injuries and deaths. These benefits explain why there is a global movement o create “slow cities.”

More abundant and diverse choices. Higher-density neighborhoods inevitably create much more in the way of choices for restaurants, other types of retail and specialty goods, and culture.

More innovation and creativity. Many studies show that higher-density cities are significantly more innovative and creative than lower-density cities. Higher-density cities attract more talented, skilled people.

More exchange. The main reason cities exist is to promote the exchange of goods, services, ideas, and sociability. Higher densities substantially increase the efficiency and amount of exchange.

More productive workforce. Higher-density cities not only attract more talented workers – which in itself promotes productivity – but also enhances productivity by reducing transportation costs in creating products or providing services.

More walking, bicycling, and transit use. Higher densities induce mixed-use development patterns, which substantially reduces trip distances. Relatively short travel distances to destinations is by far the most powerful way to increase walking, bicycling, and transit use.

Higher quality transit. Higher-density leads to higher transit ridership, which leads to better, more widespread, and more frequent transit service.

More housing choices. Lower-densities tend to deliver very limited housing choice. Nearly all of the housing consists of large single-family homes on large lots of land. Higher-density neighborhoods can provide townhouses, apartments, accessory units, co-ops, and live-work spaces.

More fiscal health for local government. Lower-density development, as shown by strongtowns.org, is a fiscal parasite because it fails to generate anywhere near the tax revenue needed to pay for its significant impacts (mostly road work) on the community. And minimizes per capita expenditures for infrastructure.

More security from crime. Higher densities promote citizen surveillance (often called “eyes on the street”). Higher densities lead to more regular use of sidewalks and observing the outside through house windows greatly contributes to our looking out for our collective security. Since criminals tend to rely on not being seen, this citizen surveillance greatly reduces crime. Many compact neighborhoods are now called “911” neighborhoods, as compactness increases the chance someone will spot an emergency and call 911.

More travel independence for those unable to drive a car. In a lower-density neighborhood, distances to destinations are far away and require the use of dangerous and high-speed roads. This makes car travel essential for nearly all trips, and those unable to drive (such as seniors, children, and the disabled) therefore lose travel independence. They must rely on others to get around.

More environmentally friendly. If we take, say, 100,000 people, that number of people will consume less environmentally sensitive land, produce far less air and water pollution, consume far less energy, and require less asphalt and concrete when living more compactly (ie, at higher densities). If we take that same 100,000 people and disperse them in lower-density patterns, the result is far higher levels of air and water pollution, far larger amounts of environmentally sensitive land consumed, far higher amounts of energy consumed, and far more asphalt and concrete needed.

Final Thoughts

A big part of the problem with the disconnect between the many benefits of compact development and the high level of citizen opposition to such development is that those who dislike density are thinking about the issue as a motorist and not as a human being. Since cars take up so much space, density is something that often and understandably makes the motorist furiously mad (so mad that the emotion tends to turn off a person’s brain). The idea of added density is seen as a direct threat to their ability to travel unhindered (or unfrustrated) by car.

It threatens the very core of their drivable lifestyle.

Car travel in a dense city is an effective recipe for infuriating a motorist. And again, because of the large space consumption of the car, nearly every trip the motorist takes puts them in a bad mood, as it is highly likely that driving a big metal box will be frustrating – even when densities are low.

Getting around by bicycle (or when I walk or use the bus), I pretty much never notice traffic congestion. In fact, almost every bike ride I take puts me in a better mood.


Some references:










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Problems Associated with Car Happy Community Design

By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

As a general point, low density locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible.

A sense of community is non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there is no “there there.”large lot subdivision

Seniors and kids lose their independence because they are forced to rely on others to get around.

Suburbs are more dangerous than walkable in-town locations because the risk of a car crash is much higher than “stranger crimes” like murder, mugging, rape, etc.

Car dependent designs are not only unaffordable for all levels of government. They are also unaffordable for households, since the average car costs the equivalent of a $50,000 home mortgage, and nearly every family must now own more than one car.

Low-density, disconnected street patterns create congestion even at very, very low levels of car trips because all trips are forced onto one or two major roads. Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded,” even when we are talking about “cow town” numbers.

The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Note that increasingly what this means is that people who should know better (liberals, intellectuals, greens) are urging “no growth” and “no change”, and fighting against smart growth tactics — thereby unintentionally aligning themselves with the black hat sprawl developers.


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Some Problems Associated with Low-Density Residential Living


By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

A large percentage of Americans LOVE low-density residential living, and regularly fight against any proposal that would bring more compact development anywhere near them.

But low-density development has many problems – problems that a growing number of Americans are beginning to recognize.sprawl-development

For example, low-density development locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible. A sense of community is often non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there tends to be no “there there.” Seniors and kids lose their independence because they are forced to rely on others to get around. Suburbs are more dangerous than walkable in-town locations because the risk of a car crash is much higher than “stranger crimes” like murder, mugging, rape, etc.

Car dependent designs are not only unaffordable for all levels of government. They are also unaffordable for households, since the average car costs the equivalent of a $50,000 home mortgage, and nearly every family must now own more than one car. Low-density, disconnected street patterns create congestion even at very, very low levels of car trips because ALL trips are forced onto one or two major roads (and because cars consume such a vast amount of space). Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded.” The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Increasingly, what this means is that people who should know better (liberals, intellectuals, greens) are urging “no growth” and “no change”, and fighting AGAINST smart growth tactics — thereby unintentionally aligning themselves with the black hat sprawl developers.

Tragically, the low-density lifestyle compels people living in such a setting to fight hard against the compact development that would actually reduce the problems cited above. They do so because the low-density pattern quickly results in enraging traffic congestion and loss of car parking. This vested interest in low density locks such residents in a long-term downward spiral, as positive change tends to be fiercely resisted.

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Infill Development vs Sprawl Development


By Dom Nozzi

June 26, 2003

“Infill development” is a form of development in which a vacant, undeveloped lot within the developed portion of the city is developed to contain housing, offices, retail, civic, or industrial. In other words, the lot is a “leftover” piece of property that was never developed as urbanization progressed outward.

By contrast, the opposite of “infill development” is “sprawl development” or “outlying sprawl-developmentdevelopment” — in other words, development that happens remotely from or at the periphery of the developed portion of the city. Note that “infill” can also include the REDEVELOPMENT of a property. In general, redevelopment infill uses more of the property than was used by the original development of the property.

Appropriately, infill has long been considered highly desirable by public planners, because it discourages costly sprawl, reduces travel distances, reduces car dependence, reduces household transportation expenditures, improves the quality of life of the community, improves the tax base of the community, often improves upon a property that may be experiencing crime problems or aesthetic problems, and reduces the development pressure faced by outlying, typically more environmentally important lands outside the city.

In general, infill has unfortunately been much more difficult for a developer to achieve than development in outlying areas. Usually, development in outlying areas means lower development costs, less opposition from citizens (particularly from those who live near the proposed development), less time needed for development, less need to worry about possible contamination that may be at the property due to past activities, and less need to mitigate “traffic problems.”


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Suburbs Are More Dangerous Than City Centers

By Dom Nozzi

Contrary to conventional wisdom, recent studies have found that it is statistically safer to live in city centers than the suburbs.


Because a person is way more likely to be injured or killed in a suburban car crash than to be  injured or killed in a town center. Since people drive a lot more in the suburbs, their chances of injury or death are therefore a LOT higher in the ‘burbs.One person died in this three-car crash. (KATU News photo)

This is according to studies by William Lucy, professor of Urban and Environmental Studies at the University of Virginia. See this report, for example.

I’m actually thankful that I was raised in the sprawling suburbs in Penfield, because it led me to discover how sterile, boring, and dependent-on-others life can be for people who live out there. Unless you can drive a car and find a lot of entertainment in sitting alone inside a small metal box all day, much of life in the ‘burbs is screaming misery. The result is that I’ve grown up to write a book and work as a planner to do what I can to alert people to the horrible consequences — particularly for kids and seniors — of living in sprawlsville suburbs.

In sum, to live a full, rich, pleasant, safe, car-free, independent life, one needs to live in-town.

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Public Safety and the Law of Unintended Consequences

By Dom Nozzi

[Updated Jan 2009]


Is public safety an enemy of our quality of life?


One of the most curious things about communities these days is that, paradoxically, the desire for a maximum amount of “public safety” has become profoundly responsible for making us less safe and more ill at ease, while rapidly eroding our quality of life.  The problem is particularly disturbing because even when it is noticed as a problem, there is almost nothing that can be done about it, because it is extremely difficult, politically, to do something that seems counter to public safety.  For example, if it is argued, in the name of slowing down cars for traffic safety, that we should not build streets extremely wide for huge fire trucks, the people urging more narrow streets are seen by many to be in favor of more babies dying in burning buildings—because more narrow streets might slow down the fire trucks.


Quite simply, we suffer from the “law of unintended consequences” when it comes to public safety.


Public Safety Effort

Wide street travel lanes, left-turn lanes, big “vision triangles,” and large turning radii (at intersections) are all justified in the name of safety for cars and speed for fire trucks.


Unintended Consequences

When we enlarge street dimensions in such ways, it becomes less safe and less pleasant to bicycle around town, or walk on a sidewalk or cross a street because of the big width of the street and the high car speeds created by the large street dimensions.  And increasing car speeds is one of the most important reasons for the decline in the livability of our neighborhoods.


Public Safety Effort

Fire Codes and Building/Electrical Codes are justified to protect against the danger of fire or structurally unsound buildings, among other things.


Unintended Consequences

Such codes are often extremely costly when they need to be retrofitted into older, “in-town” buildings, which severely inhibits adaptive reuse or redevelopment in the city (mostly downtown) and leads many to develop in outlying areas.  These consequences promote a stagnation of our downtown, reduce downtown safety due to empty buildings and reduced numbers of people, and reduce transportation choice (since nearly all outlying locations can only be reached by car).  This problem is so substantial that the state of New Jersey has recently adopted a parallel Code that makes it easier for older, existing buildings to comply with contemporary safety rules.  The result has been a significant increase in the rate of in-town redevelopment.


Public Safety Effort

Increasingly loud and frequent emergency vehicle sirens, which are justified to ensure that motorists are able to hear emergency vehicles and get out of the way. On a related note, these loud emergency vehicles are brought to an increasing number of incidents—any incident that might possibly need emergency assistance.


Unintended Consequences

As emergency vehicle sirens become louder and more frequent, the nerves of in-town residents get frayed, and the tranquility and restfulness of in-town locations is lost. In-town locations are inherently subject to more sirens because most calls originate in central areas of a community.  Some cities have noticeably less siren noise pollution than others—not because they are less dangerous or experiencing less emergencies, but because the community leaders recognize that a balance must be struck between public safety and quality of life. 


Without striking this balance, and letting public safety concerns overwhelm quality of life concerns, many communities increasingly seem like a war zone, and its citizens are regularly awakened in the middle of the night by sirens. Commonly, people move to the outlying suburbs (which promotes costly sprawl and harms our in-town areas) to escape the in-town noise, and find peace and quiet.


Public Safety Effort

“High-tech”, catastrophic medical care, which is justified to heroically save or extend lives.


Unintended Consequences

Such care is extremely costly, which makes the overall health care system rather unaffordable in the U.S., and de-emphasizes important efforts such as preventive care.


Public Safety Effort

Liability management applied to public facilities (ensuring that your organization is not doing things that increase the chances of lawsuits), which is justified to guard against costly lawsuits.


Unintended Consequences

Often, we decide not to build public facilities, such as skateboard parks or imaginative youth play equipment, because of the threat of someone getting hurt and suing the responsible agency.


Public Safety Effort

Towering concrete street lights, and other forms of excessive lighting, which is justified to promote safety for motor vehicles and people at night.


Unintended Consequences

Tall, concrete street lights are extremely ugly, and ruin any chance of creating a romantic, human-scaled ambiance in our city. The “highway” character that tall street lights create probably encourage higher vehicle speeds. Excessive lighting hides the night-time stars from our view (an awe-inspiring view when we are away from cities). It adds dangerous glare to streets that is distracting or blinding to motorists. It makes our community less of a pleasant place because so many retailers use the lights to create the “building as sign” effect. It wastes a tremendous amount of electricity. And it makes it easier for lawbreakers to hide, since excessive lighting darkens shadows that they hide in.


Public Safety Effort

Surface parking lots in front of buildings, which is justified because some people feel unsafe at night if the parking lot is behind the building.


Unintended Consequences

When buildings are moved away from the streetside sidewalk, walking on the sidewalk becomes much less safe, less pleasant, and less convenient – therefore, more trips are made by car instead of by foot. In addition, we lose the cozy feeling created when buildings close to the street form wonderful “outdoor rooms.”


Public Safety Effort

Trees severely pruned or chopped down, or kept outside of the “clear zone” of streets, which is justified to protect overhead power lines, and guard against drivers crashing into trees if they veer off the street.


Unintended Consequences

Trees cut back or moved away from streets make our community and neighborhoods substantially less attractive and less shaded.  Pulling trees back from the street also makes the street more “forgiving” and creates more of a “racetrack” feeling, which results in more reckless, high-speed, dangerous travel by cars.


I’m sure you can add your own favorites to this disturbing list…


Public safety is certainly not something we should trivialize or not strive to improve. But we need to guard against “suboptimizing.” That is, we need to remember that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, if for no other reason than that we can undercut other essential public objectives, such as quality of life, if we put all of our eggs into the public safety basket.


And as I note above, sometimes we get consequences we did not intend or foresee.



Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

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Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

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