Office of State Planning Coordination >> Delaware By Design

5 Principles of Good Design
  1. Increased density when in appropriate locations;
  2. Unite people & places through an integrated street network;
  3. Mixed uses;
  4. Car parking solutions not requiring large lots; and
  5. A place where residents love to live.


One of the key elements of good design is a variety of housing types in a much more compact layout, which often translates to higher density. If higher density developments are designed poorly they are not appealing to most people. The ugly, large, very high-density public housing sites built post WWII, led many to believe that higher density could only be built in this manner. However, planners learned from these mistakes.

When considering compact housing, one must remember to put higher density development in appropriate scale and context. The density does not need to be ‘high’, just higher than single-family detached. There can be a balance in a community with mixed uses. People are realizing that higher density development is positive. It improves local economic development, provides a balanced housing stock, creates neighborhoods that people love to be a part of and it improves the environment. However, one must figure out how to best combine good design with increases in density.


Paynter's Mill, Milton
Paynter's Mill, Milton


The Urban Land Institute (2005) found five things make a neighborhood appealing:
  1. Interconnectedness;
  2. Green Infrastructure;
  3. Public Space;
  4. Defined Private Space;
  5. Diversity; and
  6. Context.

How to combine good design with increased density? The Urban Land Institute (2005) examined density across the United States and offered some insightful findings. They concluded that the positive character of a neighborhood is not defined by the density of the housing, but rather by the design of the site. For example, part of the American dream is to have one's own yard and privacy. The Urban Land Institute found that even at 24 units per acre, people can be offered their own yards; higher density developments can satisfy the desire for privacy through site design and creative architecture. They also found that in neighborhoods with grid pattern street networks, density levels can be tripled in contrast to subdivisions with curvilinear street patterns.


The Village of Five Points, Lewes, DE
Village of Five Pointes, Lewes

Economic Benefits of Density

Economists are now supporting higher density development (Knaap, 2007) and research finds that higher density leads to positive economic benefits (Katz, 2005). For example, as employment density increases, so does labor productivity. Doubling employment density increases average labor productivity by about six percent. Similarly, towns with higher density employment and residential centers attract more young educated workers drawn to nearby amenities (Katz, 2005).

Environmental Benefits of Density

The Overlook, Dover, DE
The Overlook, Dover

Currently, the U.S. is losing about 2 million acres a year to sprawling development (Urban Land Institute, 2005). Low-density development increases air and water pollution due to long commutes in sprawling areas with large impervious surfaces. Air pollution has escalated to such a level that more than 50 percent of Americans are now breathing unhealthy air (Urban Land Institute, 2005).

Preservation of open space fosters a sense of community in a neighborhood. Consumers prefer shared outdoors space over large low-density development:  when shown pictures of sprawling, scattered development versus higher density with open space, respondents preferred the latter. Superior architectural and design details were also shown to promote greater neighborhood satisfaction (Kearney, 2006). Earlier research has shown that town design, architecture, and urban planning philosophy are responsible for the creation of a sense of community for residents (Plas & Lewis, 1996).


Robert Burchell found that 'planned' growth uses 20 to 45 percent less land than 'trend' sprawl (Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 1995).


Physiological Benefits of Density

Lexington Glen, Dover, DE
Lexington Glen, Dover

Higher density developments are designed to encourage different modes of transportation; there is an emphasis on walking and biking. Research finds that people living in areas marked by sprawl are less likely to walk, weigh more and suffer from high blood pressure more often than those who live in higher density areas (Smart Growth, 2003).

A recent study found that 55 percent of Americans would walk more and 52 percent would bike more if given the opportunity (Smart Growth, 2003). Urban form is defined by street layout, distance between destinations, housing types, and commercial activity. Urban form is one of the critical factors that people use to determine their mode of transportation (Smart Growth, 2003).

On average, persons living in sprawling counties weigh six pounds more than those not living in such areas, in addition to having higher blood pressure (Smart Growth, 2003).


Infrastructure and Density

Studies found that:
  • Managed growth costs roughly 20% less for roads and 10% less for water and sewage than sprawl
  • High-density planned developments show a 47% decrease in infrastructure costs
  • The average resident of a well-designed neighborhood drives 25% less than one living in sprawl
  • When density is doubled, the number of vehicle miles traveled is reduced by almost 40%
One of the most negative aspects of low-density development is the burden placed on local municipalities and tax payers to support infrastructure costs. A study using data from the National Personal Transportation Survey shows that when density is doubled, the number of vehicle miles traveled is reduced by 38 percent, thereby reducing infrastructure costs (Urban Land Institute, 2005).

The Urban Land Institute (2005) found that infrastructure cost per housing unit drops dramatically as density is increased. The combined cost of utilities, schools and streets falls from $90,000 per dwelling unit on four acres to roughly $10,000 per dwelling unit at 30 units per acre.

Often, higher density communities have higher percentages of residents without children. These households create less demand for essential services like schools, while contributing to the tax base that supports them.  Research continually shows that sprawling development does not generate enough property tax to support the services it requires. Higher density housing allows for a strong tax base while maintaining less area requiring essential services.

It is a common misconception that higher density development brings down surrounding property values. Between 1997 and 1999 the U.S. Census and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), found that the value of a single family home went up 2.9 percent annually if within 300 feet of multi-family housing, but only 2.7 percent annually if no multi-family housing was in close proximity (Urban Land Institute, 2005).


Next: What is Good Neighborhood Design?

Last Updated: Friday, 07-Nov-2014 09:18:44 EST
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