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Density is a Loaded Term

December 21, 2020 by admin
Urban Planning

You Keep Using That Word – I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means!

  • Inigo Montoya

Nearly two and a half years ago (has it really been that long?), I wrote an opinion piece published on the Utah Policy website titled Density is Not the Problem! (I was really in love with exclamation marks then, good grief!).  The gist of what I wrote then was that the word “density” inspires reactions against it with people envisioning bad things.  In actuality, I wrote, density becomes very much more “acceptable” when it is properly planned and designed.

A couple of recent experiences and a blog post from another writer got me thinking about the topic again just recently.  Michael Lewyn, associate professor at Tuoro College Fuchsberg Law Center in Long Island, posted a blog piece on the website Planetizen last week in which he talks about a couple of studies that seem to show that people don’t mind diverse housing in their neighborhoods, but they don’t like “density.”

Lewyn cites the results of a survey by the real estate site Redfin, that asked if the respondents “’support zoning policies that make it possible for more dense housing units, such as multi-family homes, to be built near where I live.’ Only 27 percent of persons answered ‘yes’ to this question.” This seems to fall in line with the experiences I, and many other planners, have had over the years.

I am a member of the Kaysville City Planning Commission, and we are in the midst of preparing an update of the city’s general plan.  That plan indicates that the vast majority of the community’s residential areas should consist of no more than 2 units per acre.  As our able staff and consultant have gone out to residents to ascertain their feelings about allowing for increases in this density in some places, the majority of responses have come back saying no to additional density, no to multi-family structures.  The outreach material presented to the public to get their input included a visual survey which showed a number of pictures of higher-rise development and blocks of apartments and condos, among other things.  The overwhelming response to these pictures was negative.  So it is no surprise to me that the city’s residents, who are mostly owners living in single-family homes, react negatively to the terms “density” and “multi-family.”

Lewyn also cites another survey where people were asked “if they supported ‘zoning laws that prohibit the construction of duplexes, triplexes and apartments in neighborhoods with single-family homes.”’  Depending on the location, only some 25 to 35 percent said they would support such laws.  That’s way under a majority.  The survey also asked “’whether they would be very concerned, somewhat concerned, not very concerned, or not at all concerned, if new apartments were proposed in their neighborhood.’ Only 12 percent were very concerned, 20 percent somewhat concerned, and 67 percent ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ concerned.”’ Now how do you explain that?

Again, this squares generally with my experience on my community planning commission.  Last year, in response to the passage of SB34 by the Utah legislature, we were working to update the city’s moderate-income housing plan and consider the variety of options listed in that bill.  As we went out for public comment, I figured this was not going to go well because of the apparent strong sentiment against anything but single-family homes by residents.  And we certainly got those comments.  But I was rather surprised by the number of comments we also got saying the housing crisis needed to be addressed and allowing for other types of housing, such as ADUs or duplexes or triplexes or even low-rise apartments and townhouses was okay with them.

How to explain such an apparent dichotomy?  Lewyn ends his blog post with this statement:

“if you ask whether Americans want more housing or the status quo, the right answer is: it depends on how the question is phrased. But there is significant evidence that anti-housing activists do not represent the population as a whole.”

And there it is.  I think over the years the term “density” and even “multi-family” have come to have such negative connotations to so many people, there is an immediate knee-jerk reaction against them whenever they are proposed in most communities.  What this tells me is that it is time we find other ways to describe, more accurately and in more detail, what kinds of residential development may be considered in future plans, rather than just using these apparently loaded terms.  Something for us to sleep on!

Wilf Sommerkorn is a recently retired urban planner, former Planning Director for Davis County, Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake County.  He now works part-time with the Utah Land Use Institute, and continues to serve as the Legislative Committee Co-Chair for the Utah Chapter of the American Planning Association.  And he is a member of his hometown Kaysville City Planning Commission.


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