Planned Densification Urban Betterment Sat, 17 Dec 2016 04:14:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 21252541 SEEKING THE MARKET Tue, 03 Mar 2015 16:26:37 +0000 By Mark Smith


– Fundamental cause missing in sprawl literature –

– Fixed assets in changing markets –

– Chronic sprawl is in part market inefficiency –

– Development processes and techniques contribute to sprawl –

 – Solution is pre enabling densification –

– Many factors said to cause sprawl might be considered demand generators –

– Excessive sprawl is not responsive to the market –

– Implications of business as usual? Another generation of development that will contribute to sprawl –


The sprawl conversation does not include a fundamental cause, which is the fixed nature of real estate assets and their relationship to evolving host markets.


Coevolution is Needed in Key Locations

The inception of the problem is that in the market circumstances of most first construction, which are usually low activity, low value economics, moderate and higher densities are not possible without subsidy because they are financially infeasible.

Once built, real estate assets are normally fixed for many decades. But the neighborhoods and markets in which assets are located by their nature often evolve, creating additional local demand that must be satisfied somewhere else in a region. In key locations where market activity and value grow rapidly, density often becomes feasible in only a few years.  In this context, fixed assets are a constraint on market forces, and the resulting disequilibrium can be a problem when trying to satisfy demand and supply locally, and to maximize return on private and public investment.

Development industry processes that determine project feasibilities–partially imposed by participants outside the developer’s organization and control–contribute to buildings, blocks, and neighborhoods that cannot grow with demand.  Additionally, industry standards, methods, and materials used to construct buildings and infrastructure that inhibit or prohibit additional improvements.  These process and technology constraints influence regional urban form.

Today, and historically, homebuyers and businesses generally seek a variety of urban and suburban settings, matching their economic, life cycle, and functional needs.  Just as excessive sprawl is not market responsive, nor is excessive density. Balanced communities are needed in most places.


Seeking the Market

Buildings and neighborhoods that can grow, or coevolve, with local households and businesses, as well as accommodate in migration, is a capacity that has been lost. In key locations, pre enabling densification can reinstate this capacity. Planned Densification solves for this within the context of today’s development industry processes and techniques, and prescribes four methods to pre enable additional improvements to projects to meet demand when it occurs.

wedge combined grab

“Markets change, buildings don’t” screenshot from Mark Smith lecture at University of San Diego


Sprawl Attributions

Sprawl literature is voluminous, spanning decades, disciplines, and global geographies. Discussion occurs in academia, industry, and popular culture. Therein, sprawl is attributed to a number of causes. In The Limitless City, a balanced book about suburban development, Oliver Gillham identifies

…four essential ingredients of suburbanization:

– Land ownership and use;

– Transportation patterns;

– Telecommunications and technology; and,

– Regulations and standards (Gillham, 8).

Within Gillham’s broad categories, and within the broader literature, there are dozens of more specific attributed causes. However, none of these address the interdependence of the time-specific feasibilities of density with market life cycles and their activity and value characteristics. Another observation of the sprawl discussion is that many factors said to cause sprawl might be productively viewed as demand generators, either agnostic to urban form or agnostic if slight modifications were made to programs and policies. More about attributed causes will be in a forthcoming paper.


Implications of Evolutionary Constraints

Losses are occurring at numerous levels. Importantly, investments, neighborhoods, and cities could be more efficient if densification was pre enabled. In many places, it is not enough to build today’s highest and best use–we must anticipate future growth potential in targeted buildings, blocks, and neighborhoods. If we do not, a significant amount of local square footage and acreage demand will be displaced elsewhere in the region, often to the edge. Redevelopment and retrofit are an expensive and often traumatic resetting of development to the current market. We are seeking the market with a more orderly evolution.

What is also occurring is that an entire generation of planning and development is being implemented without this fundamental realization of the need for coevolution. When research studies are conducted, and when conclusions and recommendations are made without functionality to pre enable densification–we are unfortunately investing in and building a generation of real estate assets that cannot evolve with the market [FN1] and in which planned evolution would be beneficial to many stakeholders.

Planned Densification 11-12 USD Go

Density topics in University of San Diego lecture by Mark Smith, Pario Research



[FN1] Evolved density in high investment locations can reduce pressure for density in other places. We can more definitively plan and invest in density in order to sustain and subsidize low density.



Gillham, Oliver. The Limitless City. Washington: Island Press, 2002.



© Pario Research 2013-2015

Reposted from May 20, 2013




Project Densification Saves How Much Farmland? Tue, 04 Jun 2013 16:16:48 +0000 By Mark Smith

In California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, real estate development has an insatiable appetite for … farm land. The American Farmland Trust’s report Saving Farmland, Growing Cities places aggregate population growth and farmland consumption into perspective

 The population of the San Joaquin Valley, now roughly 4 million, is expected to more than double by 2050. At the same time, if the Valley keeps developing an acre of land for every 6.4 people, the amount of land available to produce food will shrink by at least 500,000 acres.

 Another comparison puts this into sharper perspective: Today there are about 11 acres of high quality farmland in the Valley for every acre of urbanized land. By mid-century, there will be less than five – unless we do something different. (Unger and Thompson, 23)



“Every square foot of space built through internal densification decreases the amount of space needed in the form of sprawl” is how I synopsized infill vs edge development in 2009. My statement reflects the occupied space displacement[i]. But there is more.

Because of the low density at the edge, a tremendous amount of land is required relative to the square footage of buildings. In addition, infrastructure and civic space to service the land area are spread out more. For perspective, here are calculations of the land ‘savings’ that are realized by producing 200,000 square feet as project densification instead of edge development, the amount that might be added to a neighborhood or community shopping center as demand in a local market evolves. This scenario might represent improving a 200,000 square foot project from .25 to .50 FAR.



So, how much farm land does project densification save? One Square foot of densified project space can save about five square feet of edge land (see table). The total land savings is 941,177, or 21.61 acres with suburban project assumptions of a .25 FAR and .15 factor for roadways and other civic space. I use the term savings because project densification requires no new land, and less per square foot infrastructure than new edge development.

To put this another way, for about every 9,250 square feet of project infill, one acre of edge development might be eliminated,  and one acre of farmland saved (43,560/4.71).


Growth is important. And achieving a mix of low- and high-density neighborhoods is crucial in order to satisfy demand from the variety of residential and commercial occupancy needs now present, as well as to provide land use patterns and mixes that are fiscally more productive. As it is, most development in the San Joaquin Valley is low density without pre enablement for coevolving with market demand in key locations–meaning that it will likely remain low density.

Though the excessive suburban development occurs over many years, todays context suggests urgency. Numerous planning studies and updates to regulatory documents are occurring in the San Joaquin Valley. Implementation of these new guidelines and regulations will shape the next generation of urban development and its impact on citizens, municipal finances, and the regional economy. To improve outcomes, it is essential to look beyond desired land development patterns and address the project level feasibilities, as well as how project feasibilities relate to market evolution and life cycles. When these additional factors are considered, it is clear that we must pre enable densification in key locations.


This scenario of excessive low density development at the urban edge, often on agricultural land, occurs across the Nation but is fairly summarized by the American Farmland Trust report for the San Joaquin Valley

 No sector of the Valley’s economy has a greater stake in how– and where – communities grow than agriculture. Land is the foundation of farming and ranching, and every acre of agricultural land converted to urban use is an acre that will never again sustain food production. It is also an acre that will no longer yield benefits of nature such as wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge or the beauty of a peach orchard in full bloom.

 Though it may seem like there is plenty of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley, it is, in fact, a finite resource. And demands on that land continue to grow, not only for urban development but, just as importantly, to feed a growing population, provide renewable energy, and safeguard the environment. Conserving this irreplaceable resource –saving farmland while growing our cities – is an imperative for truly sustainable planning in the years to come. (Unger and Thompson, 2)


[i] A one-to-one displacement is probably an underestimation because many building occupants utilize more space on the edge than they would in interior locations, in part because space is cheaper; indeed, this better value for space is an important input into location selection for households and businesses. Infrastructure cost and operation are higher, and municipal revenue lower per unit of measure on the suburban edge.




Unger, Serena and Edward Thompson, Jr. Saving Farmland, Growing Cities, A Framework for Implementing Effective Farmland Conservation Policies in the San Joaquin Valley. (Davis: American Farmland Trust, 2013).


Addendum–Photographs of low density urbanization on the edge of Modesto, CA.  Images from Microsoft/Bing/Nokia.

Modesto Microsoft














Modesto Microsoft Homes Farms Civic













farmland urban mix



Ideas to Attract Private-Sector Investment in Suburban Improvement Projects in an Era of Reduced Public Support Sat, 27 Apr 2013 19:49:24 +0000 U.S. EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities recently released a compendium of research papers for the National Conversation on the Future of Our Communities.  Dr. Cowan’s paper  From Sprawlvilles to Sustainable Suburbs: Ideas to Attract Private-Sector Investment in Suburban Improvement Projects in an Era of Reduced Public Support is included.


cowan paper epa quote











The compendium includes 20 papers on a range of topics important to the health and success of our communities, including:

Economic Development Public Health Suburban Retrofit
Environmental Concerns Rural Communities and Small Towns Urban Design/Urban Infrastructure
Housing Schools


From the Smart Growth Network website:

“We hoped with this project to start a conversation on thorny issues the smart growth movement has yet to resolve, issues that have received too little attention, and issues that have escaped us altogether. We believe we have achieved that goal, and we thank the many authors who took the time to draft and submit papers and work with us. We invite you to read them, share them with others, and use them as a springboard to continue the conversation in your community.

John W. Frece
Director, Office of Sustainable Communities
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Cowan Paper Published in JOSRE Sat, 22 Dec 2012 22:00:38 +0000 annapolis_lrg

The Journal of Sustainable Real Estate has published Sustainability for Suburbs by Errol Cowan, PhD. He highlights the need to address unsustainable and declining suburbs. Dr. Cowan  suggests public and private programs to compensate for the diminishing ability of government funded redevelopment.

ec foto.











Mark Smith Discusses Planned Densification at USD Sat, 22 Dec 2012 21:13:54 +0000 How can we expect to reduce sprawl if we don’t allow real estate in key locations to coevolve with market demand?

Mark Smith recently spoke at the University of San Diego about Planned Densification. In this clip from that talk (5:28), Smith explains asynchrony as an economic cause of sprawl, and as a barrier to coevolution.


The Wedge

The Wedge

How Much Density? Mon, 02 Jul 2012 18:23:34 +0000 By Mark Smith

We are sometimes asked to explain ‘what is density?’ and ‘what is our position on density?’ In our view, the appropriate type and degree of density is locally and regionally determined, through community engagement and feasibility analysis. Planning may include a situational assessment of the economic and design influences on density, market and financial feasibility, and public and entitlement processes. See a summary of these influences and processes in Exhibit I and more detail in Exhibit II at the end of this post. Density is best viewed in relation to the marketplace over time, instilling mechanisms for density to coevolve with marketplace demand in selected locations.

Summary Influences & Processes for Density Decisions


Our mission includes helping clients optimize and implement their desired level of density, with particular focus on planning methods for implementing density over time, corresponding with evolution of marketplace demand. When uninhibited, market demand increases in most locations, which provides opportunity to increase density over time with a mix of residential and commercial uses.

But in real estate there are obstacles to the natural evolution of a community:

  • Zoning that only allows low density and does so without mechanisms for an evolution of community and density where it would be market supported and financially beneficial, including for municipalities.
  • Euclidian type zoning approaches wherein uses are separated, which can use land inefficiently and causes need for more travel in daily life.
  • The presumed fixed nature of real estate assets.
  • Community resistance to density by residential and commercial owners and tenants that do not want to be in dense urban development or poorly planned density.

Our adopted mission and assembled skills allow us to help clients optimize and implement their density decisions.

We are also asked ‘are we density advocates?’ The answer is yes, in appropriate locations, because we believe that there are economic, social, and environmental benefits that result from density being an appropriate portion of city and regional urban development. Many of these benefits are still too-little understood both in terms of their magnitude as well as how to accomplish density in ways that maximize benefits and minimize costs. Thus, we see there is a community need and related business opportunity to optimize density decisions, and implement them. Specifically, we aim to help public and private sector clients:

  • Identify market-based demand for density, including evolution of demand as communities mature.
  • Create locations for density that support a higher return on initial infrastructure investment for cities and other government bodies.
  • Reduce ongoing cost of municipal operations.
  • Provide motivation and profit for developers to accomplish well-planned density.
  • Support economic development by helping create more vital, attractive places, and add to the building area within a municipality.


Prior to the Great Recession, cities had typically become conditioned by growth and related fees. Municipal revenues from property taxes, retail sales, and business taxes were high whereas they are now considerably reduced, bringing new economic realities to municipalities.

Because of the new level of financial stress, and the prospect of it being prolonged, we foresee a movement toward the adoption of what businesses call ‘full cost accounting’ for urban development and management on behalf of both public and private sector participants. This will include better incorporation of marketplace trends over time and more accurate accounting costs and revenues. The goal is to reduce costs and to increase the ROI on investments needed.

Our advocacy is economic, not political. As market economists, we acknowledge the variety of market segments and people’s right to choose community type. Currently, higher densities represent a very small percent of urban development, particularly in the sprawling suburbs built in the past 50 years across America, which are almost entirely low density. Incomplete accounting of the cost of building and servicing low-density infrastructure has sustained a costly and inefficient chapter in urban management.

We support the pedestrian shed as an appropriate organizing principal for urban planning and development. The pedestrian shed—which advocates providing a majority of daily needs of people within walking distance of residences—can be an effective neighborhood planning model with which density relationships can be created.

A mix of higher and lower density is often the right balance. We are not suggesting that in every location density must evolve. Indeed, part of the systemic benefit of density is its relationship to and support of lower density development, such as single family housing, and undeveloped land, such as agriculture, recreation, and ecologically preserving open space. In most cases, a well-balanced community or city will contain a range of household and business types suggesting that a range of land development patterns may be optimal.


Finally, we wish to acknowledge the heightened debate about the appropriateness of density, and about motivations for density. Critics of density often imply that density advocates propose ‘wall-to-wall’ density. Actually, while we at Planned Densification advocate density, we do so where we believe it is beneficial economically, socially, and environmentally—and supported by the marketplace. Exhibit II presents details about influences and processes that affect density decisions.

Influences & Processes for Density Decisions


Balancing these influences and the required processes of real estate development results in–let us say it again–a full range of densities in a community, with higher density often representing a small amount of total development. And although the amount of density we might advocate in a city may be small compared with the city’s total land area, the increases in density in locations that correspond with considerable municipal investment in infrastructure, transportation, and other assets can make important positive impact toward lower costs and higher return on city investments—meaning a city can accomplish more with its increasingly limited income, and reduce needs for addition taxation and revenue generation techniques. Each dollar of municipal funding needs to service more of our urban land and infrastructure.














IT’S ABOUT TIME ! Wed, 09 May 2012 04:16:31 +0000

It’s About Time

By Mark Smith

Planned Densification LLC releases a video outlining some of our key considerations with Suburban Retrofit and Sprawl Repair–namely ridiculously mismatched timescales in real estate development and how so many things are ‘out of control’ in real estate development, because of the lack of functional control of the development process by developers.  Planned Densification predicts and prepares solutions for these problems to help add improvements over time in selected locations, so that private sector and municipal investments can coevolve with the marketplace. View the video on the Time Value of Community YouTube channel.

Some key topics include:

  • Timescales
  • Functional Span of Control
  • Synchronous Timescales
  • Feasibilities
  • Coevolution





PLANNED DENSIFICATION – SELECTED BENEFITS Tue, 07 Jun 2011 15:38:53 +0000 By Errol Cowan, PhD

Planned densification (PD) was conceived of by Mark Smith in the 1990s and outlined in the June 2009 issue of Urban Land. The concept is simple and makes intuitive sense. As communities grow, their need and demand for accommodating density increases as does market support for it. Integrative long-term public and private planning for intensified future density and infrastructure is prescribed by Smith to capitalize upon this dynamic, yielding benefits on the front and back ends of development.

In the absence of long term planning for densification, adapting previously developed sites to evolutionary density feasibility can be difficult and expensive. The cost and slowly depreciating value of previously erected structures typically inhibits density increases for 18 to 35 or more years until they near the end of their economic life. Thereafter, some of the obstacles to redevelopment include rights of way that often need to be expanded or reconfigured, zoning must be overhauled, parcel assembly is usually required and politics, windfall profiteering and user displacement becomes an issue. During the last half of the 20th century, re-densification was a typical by-product of public redevelopment or renewal activity. In many cases, municipalities up-zoned neighborhoods for increased density to increase financial feasibility, in an attempt to promote private sector redevelopment.

During prior decades, public sector urban planning and design adopted the convention of generating 20 year master or general plans. This type of planning had tendency to treat development as static and geographically progressive. Ignored was the dynamic change of economic activity, community demographics and real estate markets over time along with the organically occurring demand for and feasibility of density. Also untreated was the question of what happens to a community after the 20 year window comes to a close. What Smith proposed as PD is to optimize the beneficial aspects of possible or probable long term community densification trends for 50 or more years in the future. A key feature of planned densification is to recognize that demand and supply changes over time along with consumer trends and technology. PD makes provision for these changes in advance, thereby minimizing the traumas and expense associated with public or private renewal or redevelopment. This is accomplished by integrating “front end” financial, real estate, planning, design, title, development and infrastructure planning that anticipates increasing density on parcels and in the surrounding community.

During the previous century, the potential of aging inner cities to be realized by rejuvenation was largely ignored in favor of suburban expansion into previously rural lands. Now that North American metro regions have expanded and developed to a scale that promotes severe environmental degradation, transportation and other infrastructure inadequacy or inefficiency, deteriorating and depreciating building stock,  and diminishing economic returns, attention to “retrofit” or “repair” has come into vogue. To a degree, these terms are a re-labeling of urban renewal or redevelopment, and proponents are focusing on the magnitude of the challenges of sprawl and crafting a broad toolkit of solutions.  These initiatives are important and assembling impressive communities of practice around their goals.

PD can play an enabling role for suburban retrofit and sprawl repair, particularly in accomplishing increased density over time.  Designers and planners should recognize that PD is not a mono-dimensional design tool that simply addresses design or calls for attenuated project phasing. Its finest expression is an interdisciplinary collaboration to integrate market analysis, marketing, business processes, finance, coding, entitlement, development feasibility, title, and infrastructure into a seamless relatively trauma- and barrier-free formula for civic evolution. The potency of PD lies in its ability not only to identify, empower, rationalize and facilitate future increases in density, but also to capture and allocate the benefits accruing from this practice.

The mechanics and economics of PD have potential to lend a new dimension of development-derived benefits and distribute them to stakeholders. The practice of PD can result in vested entitlements for future increased density beyond initially developed levels for neighborhoods and individual sites. This can enable the following outcomes:

  • Depending upon the magnitude of increasing future density thus enabled, site values might be increased by PD entitlements.
  • Any given parcel has a possibility of future increased intensive use, including increased density. Because the potential has no certain entitlement attached thereto, future intensive use is deeply discounted into present value. Whether or not the value of its increments are recognized by appraisers, it is likely that unused  entitlements resulting from PD have a determinable increase in future utility. They can  thereby add to present value of similar un-entitled properties .
  • The future PD increased density development rights can be separated from the remaining bundle of property rights, recorded and titled.
  • Possessing the ability to meet the criteria of discrete value and title partition, PD entitlements can be monetized.
  • The prospect of PD rights monetization promises to yield positive implications for project investment and financing.
  • The prospect of the application of PD rights monetization has the potential for benefits allocated to the public sector as developer exactions.
  • Valued PD rights for parcels can be aggregated into a marketplace for PD entitlements.
  • Monetized PD rights can be used to support transit finance and infrastructure development.

PD possesses considerable potential as an application to support or enable urban repair or retrofit. In many cases, increasing density over time can be a feasible formula to lend financial feasibility or increment to such projects. This potential can be realized by careful structuring to entitle, partition and monetize density increments. The multidisciplinary process to achieve this must be synchronized with or precedent to the project design process. Specialists with Planned Densification, LLC are prepared to work with public- and private-sector entities and multi-skilled teams to bring about these new capacities.

©Errol Cowan, PhD
June 1, 2011
Licensed to Planned Densification, LLC


Wiley Releases ‘Legal Guide’ by Slone, Goldstein, and Gowder Thu, 07 Apr 2011 00:06:09 +0000 Dan Slone, along with Doris Goldstein and Andrew Gowder, Jr., have authored an important contribution to the literature of urban betterment. It is A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development for Planners, Developers, and Architects.

Andres Duany writes in the Forward: “Urbanism is not about simplicity or isolation. The question each true urbanist must ask is not, “How do I make my peace work.” It is, “How can my piece help the community work.” After all, walkability, mixed use, diversity, and density have their discontents. All sorts of things can go wrong. A good nighttime bar can annoy the neighbors; a narrow, pedestrian-friendly street can worry the fire chief. The urbanist must be skilled at knowing what can go wrong no less than knowing what is to be done. This book’s authors are at the heart of this recovering skill set – they are the pioneers in the design of the operating system of community. By operating system I mean the system that integrates that raw stuff of humans, buildings, commerce, thoroughfares, and landscape with money provided by designers and developers so that it comes to life as smoothly as possible…The authors have a reverse engineered success.”

Click on the link above for the table of contents and more information from the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., or here for Dan’s book on

Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development

Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development for Planners, Developers, and Architects






Dan Slone on “Upgrading Suburbia” Wed, 06 Apr 2011 18:29:35 +0000 Dan Slone recently presented at the annual Greenprints Conference and Trade Show in Atlanta, in a session titled “Retrofitting and Repairing Suburban Sprawl.”

Dan Slone Greenprints Presentation

Dan Slone Presents at Greenprints Conference and Trade Show


For several decades, Dan has been a leader in formulating ways to improve buildings, community and municipal plans, building products, and organizations.  At Greenprints, Dan discussed ‘seven steps for suburban upgrades,’ which include:

  • Develop vision–engage leaders
  • Engage public
  • Remove impediments
  • Build-up development mechanisms
  • Build supporting codes
  • Invest in infrastructure
  • Execute relentlessly through all available mechanisms

Along with DPZ’s Director of Town Planning Galina Techieva and Professor Ellen Dunham Jones of Georgia Tech, Dan talked about ways to reconfigure existing and underperforming sprawl into more sustainable, energy-efficient, healthy places. In addition to discussing the problems presented by sprawl, Dan talked about some built examples of upgraded projects as well as future tools for improving the effectiveness and profitability of suburban redevelopment. Dan’s presentation can be viewed here. Planned Densification is outlined in slides 29 – 33.