MPC offers advice on discussing density in the public arena - Metropolitan Planning Council

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MPC offers advice on discussing density in the public arena

Given the Chicago region's growth projections over the next 30 years, determining how and where it is appropriate to increase density will become a central planning issue.

The Chicago region is expected to grow by 1.6 to 1.8 million people in the next 30 years. The City of Chicago predicts a 65 percent increase of residents in the downtown area alone by 2020. These new residents must live somewhere, yet with them come more traffic, longer commute times and loss of open space from uncoordinated development pushing further out into our region.

An alternative to this scenario is to increase density in existing municipalities. However, suggesting an increase in residential density almost always guarantees a big, angry crowd at a public meeting. Density often causes thorny conflict in communities, regardless of whether the proposed development is a small townhouse expansion in the suburbs or a 20-story high rise in downtown Chicago. While planners and public officials face community backlash over density issues daily, they have not discovered a way to mitigate these conflicts in their communities. Given the projected increase in population for our region, solving our perennial density conflicts will be increasingly important.

On April 15, 2003, MPC co-sponsored a panel discussion with the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs (CUPPA) exploring the challenges in analyzing density empirically and discussing density with the public. MPC’s Vice President of External Relations, Peter Skosey, prepared the crowd for more questions than answers to the density conundrum. Analyzing density is difficult because measurements are rarely consistent across the planning field, he said, while to the public, numbers mean little. While increasing density can create compact, efficient development that supports local economies, most people picture a slum when they hear the word density.

CUPPA students Heather Donoghue, Cindy Hallin, Roseann O’Laughlin, Rita Walters and Audrey Wennink presented findings of a semester long study of density. Hallin said that planners trying to quantify density use so many variations in methodology that they complicate their own abilities to make policy decisions, as studies are not comparable with one another. Walters analyzed one common myth about high-density development: namely, that it increases crime. She showed several community areas in Chicago at varying densities and income levels, then correlated them with crime data. The Lakeview community, for example, which has a gross density of 48 dwelling units per acre and an income of $46,645/year, has a relatively low crime rate of .62 crimes per capita. However, so does Edgewater, the densest Chicago community, at 55 dwelling units per acre and a relatively low income of $23,504/year. Edgewater’s crime rate is a low .42 crimes per capita. Clearly, the numbers do not support the myth that density increases crime.

Wennink noted that despite numerous studies, the data is inconclusive when linking density to transportation. Most studies try to show that higher density lowers vehicle miles traveled, but they do not control for income, speed of travel, location, land use or neighborhood choice, calling their results into question. Increasing density alone does not reduce auto trips. The Federal Transit Administration claims that linking land use with mixed use development, higher densities, suitable jobs/housing balance and effective parking management strategies could lower the total number of auto trips by 18 percent. O’Laughlin presented data on infrastructure costs and environmental degradation as a result of sprawl, and made the case for approaching problems like air and water quality on a regional level. “Water pollution does not respect political boundaries,” she stated. She summed up the students’ presentation by saying that policy makers should understand that density is more than a mathematical definition. It is a complex set of perceptions about the social and built environment.

Carolee Kokola, planner/urban designer for Farr Associates, went a step further.

“Leave the numbers out of it when talking to a community about density,” she advised. Using pictures instead of numbers facilitates a discussion of density in layman’s terms. Farr Associates uses a visual preference survey and pictures of developments at various levels of density, and asks residents to give each picture a score. Farr then tallies the scores and reports back to the community with the highest rated photographs. Kokola warned that the scores themselves mean little without including comments people made about each picture. Otherwise, it is difficult to determine what people are responding to, Kokola said. Farr usually gives participants some parameters to use when evaluating pictures, in terms of looking for pedestrian character, building facades and building types. She noted that the study is quasi-scientific — part survey, part focus group. And while it cannot provide conclusive data about community preferences, it begins an input and discussion process. “There is one major caveat, preferences don’t mean buy in,” Kokola said.

Ben Ranney, director of development for Prairie Holding Corporation offered advice for how to achieve community buy-in from a developer’s perspective:

  1. Know your community: identify stakeholders, work closely with municipal staff and communicate with elected officials.
  2. Know the issues in the community: property tax issues, overcrowding in schools, neighborhood character, etc.
  3. Listen: Every community has a vision of itself.
  4. Communicate: seek input from third parties — architects, planners and consultants. Encourage local residents to be advocates for you.
  5. A developer’s word will always be suspect: be cautious about sharing information. Don’t respond to every accusation and be careful about using e-mail to communicate, as it can be tampered with.
  6. Be flexible: Leave room for adaptation in your plans: expect to add amenities, different uses or lower density as a result of negotiations with the community.
  7. Make sure your budget can accommodate some change and still make the project buildable.

The three presentations only served to reinforce the difficult nature of dealing with urban density. As MPC continues to focus on density, check back for helpful tools, methods and resources to thoughtfully encourage density and redevelopment.

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