compact development: overview

What is compact development and why is it important?

The term "compact development" does not describe a specific building or project type, but rather refers to a development approach in which single-family or multifamily homes are built at relatively higher densities that maximize the use of land by accommodating a greater level of development on a given parcel. In comparison, conventional low density development calls for single-family homes to be sited on larger lots, often at a distance from one another and from retail and commercial areas. Typical low-density land use patterns may lead to sprawling development that isolates residential neighborhoods from shopping districts, schools, job centers and other amenities and increases the costs of serving the residents with basic infrastructure.

Compact development can contribute to housing affordability in several ways. First,
Poinsettia Station
Image Courtesy of BRIDGE Housing
in communities where single-family homes are the norm, a land use policy that promotes compact development may allow for the development of smaller homes or multifamily buildings, providing families with expanded housing options to fit a range of household needs, including apartments, townhomes, or condos. When combined with policies that promote the inclusion of affordable homes, new compact development increases the supply of units available to working families. Finally, compact neighborhoods often allow for a mix of uses and facilitate a range of transportation choices, including pedestrian activity and public transit, reducing household transportation costs, often the second greatest expense after housing.

Compact development can support other community goals, too. For example, well-designed compact development can spur economic development by accommodating the population density needed to make public transit and street-level retail economically viable. Mixed-use, compact development can also contribute to improvements in environmental quality through land use patterns that enable residents to access stores and other amenities on foot or bike (or shorter car trips), easing congestion and reducing associated greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing the footprint of new development and focusing on infill projects can also relieve pressure on undeveloped land, helping to preserve agricultural areas and open spaces that might otherwise be lost
Concerns Regarding Compact Development

Some individuals oppose efforts to increase the compactness of development, arguing that it may decrease surrounding property values or increase crime or traffic. However, the available research suggests these concerns are generally misplaced. Click on one of the resources below for:
to development and mitigating excess runoff and negative impacts on water quality. (One source places the loss of farm land nationally at the alarming rate of two acres each minute). [1]

How can local communities promote compact development?

In general, the relative compactness of new development is regulated by local zoning laws, which determine how many dwelling units are allowed per acre (also known as density). By adopting new or amending existing zoning laws to allow higher-density development "as of right"—that is, without the need to secure a special variance—local jurisdictions can increase land use density to levels appropriate to the surrounding community (whether it be rural, suburban, urban) and the local government's planning goals.

Aside from traditional zoning, other policies can encourage compact development. In rural or suburban settings, "cluster development" allows new residential subdivisions to be clustered at greater densities on one section of a land parcel—rather than spread evenly across the buildable land—in order to preserve open space on the remainder of the site. Rezoning neighborhoods to allow for accessory dwelling units might be an appropriate route to increase density for low density residential neighborhoods, whereas in urban areas with high rates of vacant or abandoned properties, incentivizing infill development may be a strategic approach to support compact development.

In regions with strong transit connectivity, overlay zones can be paired with inclusionary housing policies to allow increased density around transit station areas and ensure that affordable housing opportunities in those zones are available for working households. Click here to learn more about land use policies that encourage compact development.

Where does compact development work best?

Compact residential development is not a one-size-fits all approach. Appropriate density levels will vary substantially from community to community, as will the policies needed to achieve local goals. For example, density levels that work in New York City will differ from density levels in cities such as Denver or Minneapolis, just as appropriate density levels in a suburban community will be different than in rural settings. A study of compact communities by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (formerly the Northeastern Illinois Planning Council) found that the most thriving residential neighborhoods had housing densities ranging from ten to sixty dwelling units per acre and were within a half-mile of the nearest transit services. [2]

The wide density range illustrates the flexibility local governments have to make sure their land-use regulations are context-sensitive and appropriate in relation to existing development and anticipated use of the area. Other metropolitan areas and rural counties may well identify a different range of densities as appropriate for those areas.
SSC 2011

View presentations and other resources on encouraging compact, equitable and sustainable communities from the Solutions for Sustainable Communities learning conference. Sessions from the conference included:
  • Foundations of Compact and Sustainable Development
  • Adopting Land Use Policies that Support Compact, Sustainable Development
Click here to access these materials.

The Lincoln Land Institute's online toolkit, Visualizing Density, provides hundreds of images that illustrate how well-designed compact development fits in appropriately to urban, suburban and rural areas. This toolkit serves as a useful visual aid enabling local governments, affordable housing developers and advocates to identify what density levels and land use tools work best in their community and make the case for compact development.

Lion Creek Crossing
Learn more
about promoting compact development patterns

High Point
Go back to learn about other policies that promote sustainable and equitable development

[1] Farming on the Edge. [Webpage]. American Farmland Trust.
[2] Building A Regional Framework: Transit-Oriented Development. [PDF] 2001. Chicago, IL: Northeastern Illinois Planning Council.