An introduction to “gentle density”
Paraphrased and summarized from a 2019 Brookings Institution Report by Alex Baca, Patrick McAnaney, and Jenny Schuetz.
Increasing density isn’t always about building high. There’s ample untapped land in neighborhoods that can be repurposed for housing, creating unique and better-matched housing opportunities for diverse populations, including aging baby-boomers. Adding units in low-density neighborhoods can also improve access to affordable housing—if land use rules allowed townhomes, two- to four-family homes, and small-scale apartment or condominium buildings.
Replacing detached single-family homes with “gentle density” could increase the number of homes available and bring down average housing prices in high-cost locations, while retaining the physical scale of the neighborhood.
Where land is expensive, building more homes per parcel increases affordability
Adding more homes in single-family neighborhoods makes it possible for more people to move into the neighborhood (and city). Under certain conditions, the new homes will also improve affordability, because the cost of the most expensive factor—land—is spread across more homes.
Density supports neighborhood retail and a healthier planet
Adding more homes—and thus more neighbors—to low-density neighborhoods can help support local retail businesses that depend heavily on foot traffic, like hardware stores, bakeries, and restaurants. Although dense housing reduces yard space, good landscaping, green roofs, and other design solutions including sidewalk berms can offset stormwater runoff. Local retail that households can access without driving helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the largest driver of climate change and air pollution.
More homes equals more affordability and economic opportunity
First, it is possible to add more homes in single-family neighborhoods while keeping buildings at similar scale. When viewed from the street, three adjacent townhomes or six small condos can be constructed at approximately the same height and mass as existing single-family homes.
Second, allowing smaller homes that use less land is an important way to improve affordability. Where land is expensive, adding more homes on a given parcel reduces housing costs for each household. Gentle density also enables better matching between the size of one’s house and the size of one’s household.
Third, diversifying the housing stock in exclusive neighborhoods creates better access to economic opportunity. The reason land is expensive in these neighborhoods is because they are located near job centers and transportation hubs, and offer amenities such as excellent public schools and low crime.
Apartments are homes, not an “invasion”
Despite the benefits to residents and neighborhoods, rowhouses and multifamily buildings are often illegal or too onerous to build effectively. Single-family-only zoning means that a builder must seek special permission to construct compact housing, a process that ultimately makes it more expensive. “Protection” from multi-family housing in single-family neighborhoods entrenches economic and racial segregation.