Early in 2015, a group of builders met with city planning chief David Miller to reveal their plans for developing 3,600 acres (1,500 ha) in the northern California city of Folsom, including pockets of high-density development. Miller was dismayed by what he saw and refused to approve the plans. There was no detail, no sense of the design, “no heart,” he recalls. “All they gave us were the land uses—colors on a map.”
Miller decided an education process was required, which is often the case with high-density projects. He hired a consultant to make a presentation to developers on smart high-density design, illustrating the city’s goals. A few months later the developers, led by Westland Capital Partners, returned with exactly what Miller wanted—a detailed plan for creating a new mixed-use city center, with short blocks, narrow streets, bike paths, and 30 percent of the land set aside for green space. The project, which eventually will include more than 10,000 homes, is now moving forward with the support of the city.
“If you have urban design that creates spaces that people like and want to go to, the other pieces fall into place,” Miller says.
As the Folsom experience demonstrates, there is a special art to developing high-density projects. Recent ULI studies have found that making density work requires specific strategies, strong design, and tailored community approaches, in addition to persistence and patience. More and more government leaders and planners accept the benefits of density, including the ability to create walkable, vibrant, sustainable neighborhoods. Yet density remains a dirty word in many communities, invoking images of high-rise slums, snarled traffic, and cold, impersonal office projects.
“We need to reclaim the word density,” says Greg Clark, senior fellow with ULI Europe and coauthor of two 2015 ULI studies on the subject. “We need to change how people understand the word.”
The two reports, developed in conjunction with experts and stakeholders from around the world, found consistent elements among successful high-density projects, as well as similar themes among projects that failed. Good projects do not happen by accident; definitive steps can be taken to make density work, the researchers found. As they delved into the complexities of density, a roadmap emerged for creating good projects while avoiding the pitfalls of the past.
“We know now, better than ever before, what is good density and what is bad density,” Clark and coauthor Emily Moir, director of the London-based consulting firm the Business of Cities, write in Density: Drivers, Dividends and Debates, released by ULI Europe in June. “We know what drives and enables density and what inhibits or prevents it.”
A Different Approach
High-density projects cannot be approached in the same manner as typical projects, experts say. Too many entrenched obstacles exist, from financing to community opposition. Creating a successful high-density project requires a different project evaluation from the start, and the bar for success is almost always set higher for denser developments.
“Density demands high-quality design,” says ULI senior resident fellow Ed McMahon, who has written extensively on the topic. “You can’t take more units, stick them together, and expect people to like it.”
Projects that do not work tend to have four common elements, according to the ULI studies: a single land use; a lack of public space and amenities; dependence on one mode of transportation, usually the car; and failure to provide a safe, 24-hour environment.
Skyscraper-focused, high-density office projects such as Canary Wharf in London and La Défense in Paris were initially criticized for their “myopic” focus on business, which created stale, cold environments that people abandoned at night, the study notes. In similar fashion, high-density suburban shopping-mall developments in North America were branded as soulless, providing no real value to the community.
In contrast, the list of qualities found among successful high-density projects is long, including mixed uses; connectivity to transportation and infrastructure; cohesiveness with long-range community plans; and a strategic vision, which includes a greater emphasis on placemaking beyond that for a standard project.
For The Density Dividend: Solutions for Growing and Shrinking Cities—cowritten by Clark and Tim Moonen, director of intelligence at the Business of Cities, and published by ULI Europe in October—the research focused on six cities facing diverse issues with density. Those cities—Birmingham, England; Dresden, Germany; Istanbul; London; Stockholm; and Warsaw—represented very different stages of development, with distinct goals and challenges. Despite the differences, five core factors were found in the successful densification efforts: citywide frameworks; the use of public/private partnerships and private initiatives; concentration in prioritized areas; financial tools for investment in good density; and design and planning for placemaking and livability.
Placemaking—creating a 24-hour destination that provides energy, walkability, and security—is often the overlooked factor. “If you have density without placemaking, you get a different kind of city,” Brian Moran, senior managing director of Hines, the international real estate firm, told the ULI researchers. “So the skills of placemaking are critical, but, in general, city governments don’t understand how to commission it.”
Most high-quality dense developments start with strong, long-range regional planning, Clark says. “There is no point in city government doing accidental density or laissez-faire density,” he says.
“Cities that accomplished density have been the most proactive,” focusing on broad land use planning and transportation connections instead of piecemeal projects, Clark says. Bad density projects tend to be developed “without due regard on how they fit,” he says. “The best local plans happen in context of the best city plans.”
Beyond community planners, developers have to rethink their basic approach to creating dense projects, the research found. That includes a reality check on the best way to finance projects, says Andy Martin, senior partner in Strutt & Parker, a U.K. consultancy. In the boom years, the financial community often backed projects that failed due to the lack of basic infrastructure and facilities. “Today, capital is not so stupid,” says Martin, who contributed to the ULI study Density: Drivers, Dividends and Debates.
Any financial backer of a dense development must accept that these developments take longer to build, making them a tough sell for banks and private equity firms looking for a prompt return, Martin says. The ideal investors are often sovereign wealth funds and pension funds that can afford to be patient—“people able to let money sit,” Martin says.
Developers also must recognize that effective high density does not always mean tall buildings. Tall buildings “don’t create places; they create problems, unless you consider the places around them,” Martin says. Famously dense cities such as Paris, Barcelona, and Vienna are known for their mid-rise plans, not skyscrapers. The six European cities studied by ULI were able to “achieve density through mid-rise projects without having to build extremely high throughout the inner city,” according to Density Dividend.
Whether examining high-rise or mid-rise development, the ULI studies found several key drivers pushing the development of higher-density projects beyond the usual factors of population growth, sustainability, and economic development. Among those key drivers is the emergence of new technologies to help creation of more efficient buildings and workspaces, making it more feasible to develop compact, connected projects. At the same time, cities are eager to develop badly needed transportation infrastructure, which is also essential to spurring denser development.
“Unless you can move people without cars, you can’t really get past a certain density,” says Julie Campoli, an author and a principal of Terra Firma Urban Design, a design consultancy in Burlington, Vermont.
But options exist beyond subways and light rail to achieve those connections and get people out of their cars. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association by Daniel Chatman, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, found that scarcity of parking and the number of bus stations in the vicinity play a larger role in getting people out of their cars than proximity to a rail connection. Neighborhoods with limited parking, small rental apartments, and easy bus service cut car ownership by 44 percent, the study found.
To bring together all the elements, dense developments from the outset require more engagement, the ULI research found. Coordination with representatives of local government, utilities, transportation agencies, and neighborhood stakeholders must start early in order for common goals to be determined and innovative solutions developed.
For The Density Dividend, the researchers found that several elements need to be in place in order for “an agenda for good and popular density” to be built. The list includes leadership and vision, which creates a compelling story for the city and brings together private and public resources; clear tactics, such as targeted locations, innovative design, and integrated management of the various aspects of the development process; and enough momentum to ride out the economic and political cycles that embroil many cities.
Fear of Change
Ultimately, almost every dense development must be rooted in a strategy to overcome entrenched misperceptions about high density, especially in the United States, where many cities have a mixed history with dense development. “People are afraid of change,” Campoli says. “You’re always going to bump up to an emotional reaction.”
ULI members surveyed for Density: Drivers, Dividends and Debates said livability concerns, such as overcrowding, noise, and traffic, are the biggest reasons for resistance to density, ranking ahead of social concerns and economic issues. To succeed, projects must offset those concerns while their proponents make a case that the community will benefit from making concessions for a high-density project. “People have to see that density produces shared opportunities,” Clark says. “They have to see the trade-off between losing some pricing or public assets.”
The ULI research identified a wide range of marketable benefits of density, including the ability to finance infrastructure; the ability to attract young, innovative companies; improved health of residents; and increased social equality because projects bring together diverse communities. But every community is different and has different goals, which must be identified and addressed.
Some jurisdictions—such as Folsom—are eager to have green space and public gathering spots, while others are focused on entertainment space or a neighborhood’s need for an anchor grocery store. Affordable housing is often a core goal for local governments, especially for many modern high-density projects associated with luxury apartment towers, but requirements for low-priced homes can also raise concerns about security and skewer the economics of a project.
Involving the community in the planning process is essential so that people “don’t feel ambushed,” Campoli says. “People will often assume the worst.” Often the key is to provide public space that is completely controlled by the community in order for the public to “really feel like it’s theirs.” Flexibility is essential, Campoli says. “It can blow up in your face. You have to have some flexibility.”
Conveying the vision for a project—and how it fits the community needs—requires an active, engaged campaign, experts agree. Community opposition is not always grounded in simple NIMBYism. Neighborhoods may rally around architectural preferences, cultural norms, or other elements rooted in the community, Clark says.
The process of conveying the vision often starts with the use of renderings, maps, and graphs to help local residents visualize the finished product and its benefits. “You can’t expect people to think in the abstract,” Clark says. “You have to show them places that are relatively more attractive.”
To succeed, developers have to acknowledge the “psychology of density,” Clark says; the design must give the community a “sense of belonging.” More than other projects, a high-density development needs a clear sense of identity and character, offering the community something to embrace beyond the economic data and square footage reports. “The place has to feel like a real place,” Clark says.
Demonstration projects—smaller-scale “seed” developments—often help pave the way, providing a real example of how a denser project will look and function. “These demonstration projects offer visible benefits to existing communities and so catalyze new attitudes and momentum towards density and serve as ‘quick wins,’ ” Clark and Moonen write in The Density Dividend.
After studying the six cities, Clark and Moonen concluded that a clear vision for the long-term goals of density was often among a project’s best selling points. “Cities that build an idea and ambition about what they want to become, and which instill this aspiration in their citizens, find it much easier to achieve the behavior change that is necessary to increase densities of interaction and development,” they write.
The Asian Experience
During the density discussions at the 2015 ULI Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Scott Dunn, Malaysia-based vice president for AECOM in Southeast Asia, was struck by the commonalities of the issues confronted by cities around the world. Debates about mobility and connections similar to those found in Asia were also embroiling planners in Europe and North America.
No matter the location, surveys found “the number-one driver toward any outcome [for a dense project] was [that] it needs to be easy and convenient,” says Dunn, a member of ULI Singapore. If it is easier and more convenient for the community—if it provides easier transportation connections, more convenient shopping, whatever the element—density wins.
Asia’s forays into density have represented the best and worst of the genre, with many early projects built as isolated, single-use office blocks or rows of impersonal residential towers. But cities like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong also shine as examples of well-executed high-density projects built within citywide frameworks for transportation and green space.
Government agencies in Asia are doing a better job these days of establishing broad design guidelines and addressing how to bring water, transportation, and other services to projects, Dunn says. “Everything is much more well thought out, especially when you have multiple elements,” he says.
Asian cities are excelling at finding innovative ways to address the multiple elements that often overlap in cities, including utilities and transportation, Dunn says. In Kuala Lumpur, AECOM is working on the River of Life project, which is planned to combine 6.7 miles (10.7 km) of waterfront parkland, 14,000 new homes, and 11 million square feet (1 million sq m) of commercial space with a flood mitigation and coastal cleanup project. In Singapore, the Marina Barrage, a dam completed in 2008, merges a freshwater reservoir and flood-control facility with a public park and recreational facility.
“Creative planning adds value and brings vibrancy to these spaces,” says Limin Hee, director of research for the Singapore-based Center for Liveable Cities, which worked with ULI to develop “10 Principles for Liveable High-Density Cities” in 2013.
Planning for long-term growth has allowed Singapore to create developments that “do not feel overly crowded and are both functional and aesthetically pleasing,” Hee says. Land is set aside from the outset, creating space around the skyscraper projects for parks, schools, and community facilities. The result is “spatial and visual relief when the area is built up in the future,” Hee says.
Lessons from Asia’s unique case studies may be difficult to translate to other regions, but they still hold value for the rest of the world, Dunn says. “Forms of density can take many shapes,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be tall towers. It can just be appropriate use of land.”
For planners and developers around the world wrestling with the issues of density, general agreement exists that there has been a shift—that more and more people are recognizing the need to embrace density.
“There is a huge amount of evidence [that] people increasingly want density, or they want the things that come with density,” Clark says.
A new urgency to create better developments is affecting cities around the world. But making density work requires the land use industry to confront a major cultural challenge, Clark and Moonen write in The Density Dividend.
“Our democracy is sometimes at odds with our long-term interests,” they write. “Planning and investment decisions made by democratic local governments far too often prioritize the preferences of current residents, who seek to protect what they have, over the needs and interests of citizens who have not yet arrived or have not yet been born.”
To Clark, there is no choice. The alternatives will not work. “Sprawl has huge costs we can’t afford,” he says.
Kevin Brass writes regularly about property and development for the International New York Times.