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The age of higher density

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/14/07 @ 4:51pm

Trend spotters recently noticed two massive shifts in human civilization that offer a glimpse into how we will live in the (near) future.

First, some time this year or next, humanity will officially cross the line from being a rural to an urban species, according to the United Nation's State of the World 2007 report released last week. "For the first time in history, more of us will live in cities and urban areas than in the countryside, and the social and environmental implications of this transition to a predominanatly urbanised world are enormous," The Guardian reported.

(For more ideas on how the world is planning for sustainable cities).

Second, more Americans are now living single (26.4%) than are married with children (23.3%). Add DINKs and empty nesters (28.2%), and the picture of the typical American household is rapidly changing.

Taken together, the two trends point to a changing pattern in how we'll settle the land. With more urban dwellers and more kid-less households, the real estate market should respond with a diversity of housing choices. Higher-density developments in urbanized areas will continue to rise in popularity. Whether it's in new lifestyle centers like Crocker Park or infill developments like downtown Cleveland's Avenue District, living within walking distance of work, shops and play promises to attract a share of retiring Baby Boomers and college graduates.

More than one-third of the 78 million Baby Boomers in a recent survey said they want to retire in an urban or suburban area, motivated by quality health care and cultural activities such as museums and art galleries, according to The National Association of Realtors.

Meanwhile, the exodus of mobile graduates, primarily from rustbelt states like Ohio, to "more creative, vibrant urban centers" in the Sunbelt and on the East and West coasts has been documented in CEO's for Cities' The Young and Restless in a Knowledge Economy. The 2001 American Housing Survey further reveals that respondents cited proximity to work more often than unit type as the leading factor in housing choice.

Still, even with demographic trends pointing to a renaissance in higher density development, changing the dominant paradigm of single family homes on large lots will take a combination of public policy reform to slow highway-induced sprawl and educating elected officials and consumers about the benefits of higher density development.

The current debate over an interchange on I-90 for exurban Avon is a perfect example of a teachable moment in re-educating around higher density. Avon Mayor Jim Smith told NOACA that an interchange will lure development to help the bedroom community which is struggling to pay for city services.

Avon has bought into a myth that lowering its residential density requirements from 18 to 10 apartment units per acre will somehow lower the burden on its public schools and city services. The fact is, the nature of who lives in higher density housing ? fewer families with children ? puts less demand on schools and other public services than low density housing. Moreover, the compact nature of higher density development requires less extensive infrastructure to support it.

The Urban Land Institute published a report debunking the myths of higher density development. It may prove valuable as Cleveland and surrounding suburbs redefine themselves as cool cities.

Specific examples are cited on average annual cost to service a new family of four (police, fire, highway, schools and sewer). Compare: Compact suburban Shelby County, KY = $88.27 versus Sprawling Pendleton County, KY = $1,222.39 (Sources: Brookings Institution).

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