Compact Design

Community Planning and Zoning July 25, 2013 Print Friendly and PDF

Compact building design allows communities to be designed in a way that preserves more open space and makes more efficient use of land and resources. By encouraging buildings to grow vertically rather than horizontally, and by incorporating structured rather than surface parking, for example, communities can reduce the footprint of new construction and preserve more green space (Smart Growth Online).

Compact building design simply means using the least amount of land for development and supporting infrastructure that is reasonable under the circumstances.

Why should we take advantage of compact building design?

Low-density residential and commercial development consumes far more land per person than most development prior to WWII. Although this trend is partially driven by consumer demand and state and federal subsidies, it can largely be attributed to local ordinances that require large areas of land to be used for various types of development. Compact development helps support a wide range of transportation options while conserving valuable open space. Communities can ensure ready access to open space in compactly developed places by providing for a range of cluster development options, using density bonuses to conserve open space. A design review process can be used to ensure that compact development reflects desirable design standards.

Higher-density development is a key element to creating walkable communities and providing more transportation options. From a retail standpoint, more density means more customers. A neighborhood that includes more compact development can support more stores and restaurants within its boundaries. Density also fosters more transportation choices. More riders in the same area mean that bus or rail service becomes more viable and convenient. Whereas a low-density development may only justify a stop on the development’s edge, a development with more people may attract a central transit stop within a short walking distance for all residents. The transportation choices created by density offer people the freedom to select from a variety of transportation modes — walking, bicycling, mass transit, automobile — to complete their daily routines, such as commuting to work or school, running errands, and taking their children to daycare.

Higher-density development can also contribute to a wider range of housing choices. Higher-density projects can reduce per-unit construction costs, allowing developers more flexibility to respond to the market and thus offer a range of housing types to a variety of consumers. Young singles can find smaller units with convenient access to entertainment; families can seek large yards and multiple bedrooms; and retirees who are tired of maintenance can downsize their yards in favor of housing with more amenities and services. Providing these options in the same neighborhood enables residents to change housing arrangements without having to move from the community. This promotes intergenerational equity, allowing children to continue to live in the community they grew up in and for their parents to be able to afford to stay. For households with limited income, higher densities mean more housing choices at different price points. Consumer desires for convenient neighborhoods with many amenities, as well as public sector efforts to address traffic and use public resources efficiently, are creating increased interest in more compact development.

At one time, there was a clear distinction between rural and urban living in this country. In order to service an urban population efficiently, building layouts were compact, often many stories high. It was only after transportation networks and home loan programs were subsidized by the federal government that people began to leave cities for suburban and rural locations in large numbers. There were fewer financial incentives for remaining in the cities or for developing compact buildings.

There were unfortunate results from the large-scale exodus from cities and building in a low-density, sprawling pattern. These included the conversion of active agricultural and forestry lands to other uses, increases in water and air pollution, increased travel time and traffic congestion, decreased time families spend with each other, increased obesity, and a decrease in the visual quality of our communities and others. The decline in quality of life and increased costs associated with low-density, automobile-dependent development has led to renewed interest in compact building design.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.