Density is an essential element to healthy sustainable neighborhoods. Yet the definition and perception of how density affects neighborhoods remains largely divided among its residents. Ask two or 20 people walking down the street, regardless of profession or academic background, what their thoughts are on density in their town and you are likely to receive contrasting viewpoints.
Often when my family gathers around the dinner table, the conversation naturally turns toward our community's future. Before long, the subject of the conversation turns to how new city policies are transforming the fabric of our community. My family's perspective varies as much as anyone's.
The fact is our local, national and global populations expected growth continues at alarming pace. Our communities will have to absorb larger populations. For us to absorb the growing population, we will need all of our neighborhoods to shoulder the load and gain density.
Many within our community view this growth as a second baby boom the real growth in our communities is coming from the other end of our life spectrum, our aging adults (which is also a good thing).
This brings to light that our growing population carries with it a complex problem. How do we reasonably, comfortably and sustainably accommodate more people?
The answer is to see increasing density as an opportunity for improving the quality of all residents' lives. Higher density can improve residents' lives and improve the health of the neighborhood directly and indirectly.
Direct benefits include residents saving money by being closely connected to services and community. Proximity to and close connections save money and time on travel, historically by car. Another direct benefit is an increased ability for residents to supplement income with adding rental units to existing property and small businesses having additional customers in a smaller regional area.
Indirect improvements to residents and the neighborhood are connected to environmental improvements e.g., improved air quality with less driving to everyday needs and services. Density creates a cascade of additional indirect or co-benefits such as the ability of elders to age in place by weaving 'context appropriate' features into existing neighborhoods.
Density means business -- shrinking the regional pull of a business customer base, which in-turn often leads to an increase in small business startups.
The health, diversity and economic impact of an increase in businesses within existing neighborhoods, especially when they are local-independently owned, are an often overlooked, yet key co-benefit, of increasing density.
Local merchants recirculate substantially more revenue in a regional economy than do their chain competitors, and the impact of that recirculation can be credibly measured. This measurement or. "local premium" has a higher local economic impact, measure only the money left in the local economy after the initial purchase is made, due to recirculation of money and the creation of local business multipliers.
The money they keep in the local economy through extra employment, contracted services, and local profit leads to more total output, income, and employment within the local community. This, in turn, leads to a further increase in retail sales, which are then taxed to generate additional income for public services.
Moving forward, communities ought to keep in mind that the world is changing at a rapid pace. All of us, when making communitywide decisions must keep our changing needs as well as the needs of our families, both before and after our own generations, in mind.
Accounting for seniors with limited or low mobility, who can walk perhaps ½-mile round trips the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system is a great tool for analyzing and mapping where additional density and businesses should be introduced.
Scott Watkins is managing partner of integrated green building consultancy Buildaberg. In addition to his role leading the USGBC Sustainable Neighborhoods Committee, Watkins is a core member of the USGBC's California Council of Experts, a licensed California General Contractor, a LEED AP, an accredited urbanist, and previously enforced building code, permits and zoning regulation for the city of Alameda.