High-Density Development Strategies for More Sustainable Growth

Summer 2013
Situated on Nashville’s bustling West End corridor, Belle Meade Town Center offers a diverse mix of retail and residential spaces, including a grocery store, a bank, retail space, and condominiums, all accommodated by underground structured parking.

As cities around the world deal with population booms, governments, civic groups, developers, and research organizations have turned their attention to the idea of counteracting suburban expansion with targeted, concentrated urban development, marked by mid- to high-rise multi-tenant buildings with structured or centrally-located parking. The benefits of high-density development have been widely touted, and include reduced congestion and vehicle emissions, smaller ecological footprints, and long-term economic sustainability with mixed-used buildings housing multiple tenants. These benefits, though promising, are far from guaranteed.

Potential Drawbacks to High-Density Development

Several pitfalls have the potential to negate the benefits mentioned above. For example, while high-density development can draw congestion away from other areas, it can also increase traffic by drawing many people into a small area. Additionally, indiscriminate high-density building can crowd out affordably priced real estate options and actually drive further suburban sprawl, as families, consumers and businesses are forced to continually look outward for affordable options. To avoid these negative effects, designers and developers must employ thoughtful planning strategies for the short-term that are also sustainable in the long-term.

Sustainable High-Density Development Strategies

Successful high-density development strategies account for not only the initial development, but also surrounding infrastructure, communities, and future development phases. There are several strategies that can assist designers and developers in planning developments that make a positive impact on multiple levels and minimize ecological impact, while maximizing economic effects.

site plan of the Martin's Corner development in Nashville

The Martin’s Corner development in East Nashville, featuring commercial, retail, and multifamily residential space, is planned in several phases to include various price points and accommodate long-term growth.

Place high-density developments in strategic locations with high-volume transportation options. Locations served by multiple interchanges or near public transit (planned if not existing) can better accommodate large volumes and minimize congestion.

Employ placemaking principles with context-appropriate buildings and urban spaces. Public engagement is an important key to success. Planned development should provide benefits to neighbors; some mix of jobs, retail, restaurant, entertainment, amenities, and public outdoor spaces to offset possible negatives.

Promote both density and diversity. A dense project without a diverse mix of multi-use tenants is counterproductive. Providing multiple living and work places in close proximity reduces commute in and commute out traffic.

Incorporate multiple price points. Developers should consciously accommodate price points to attract the widest audience and provide a viable alternative to the seemingly low-cost allure of suburban sprawl.

Plan for long-term development phases. Developments have long lives, and density is often achieved in a piecemeal fashion, over several years and several phases. Market demand and project financing may not support a full initial build-out. However, a quality development will include a framework for a possible later phase of densification. When lease rates and price points do support structured parking and other complementing uses, a well-planned site will be able to accommodate those second generation elements.

With these strategies, high-density development can be a valuable tool for combating the harmful environmental and social effects of suburban sprawl, and promoting a style of development that makes a positive impact on several levels, both now and in the future.