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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Smart growth must become more demanding, more community-oriented, and greener (literally)

Kaid Benfield

Posted August 18, 2009

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  East Side of Toronto (courtesy of The 'Sauga on

Is it any wonder that neighbors continue to oppose density (oops, I meant "compact development") when this is what we have been giving them?  We smart growth advocates have gotten lazy.  The issue has evolved in the last decade but, for the most part, we haven't.  We're stuck in a mindset from the 1990s when it was such a monumental achievement to get density built near transit that we were happy even when it was mediocre density.  Unfortunately, more often than not, that's what we've been getting.

(Warning: This is a long one, a bit of an essay.  But, hey, at least it has great photos to pique your interest.)

Times have changed

Things are different now.  There are still too many places where we face monumental challenges (I'm not that naïve).  But, by and large, jurisdictions across the country get it today.  It seems like almost everywhere, at least the planners are pushing for more urbanism, particularly around transit.  It's happening all over DC, where I live.  My goodness, it's happening even in places like Charlotte, Nashville, and Dallas.  If that doesn't convince you that the dynamics have changed, I don't know what will.

We haven't been as successful in persuading jurisdictions to take a firm stand against suburban sprawl, but to an extent the market is coming around on that one.  Sprawl is being devalued in the marketplace; demographics (watch for another post on that topic soon) and energy prices point in the direction of stronger demand for urban environments; central cities are growing again.  We've made tremendous progress.

But, my god, is this the best we can do?  Look at some examples of what is being built and has been built recently around Metro stations in DC's suburbs (mostly; one is in the city) in the name of transit-oriented development:

   near the Rosslyn Metro in Arlington, VA (by: Neil Cooler, creative commons license)  near the Rosslyn Metro in Arlington, VA (by: Elvert Xavier Barnes, creative commons license)

   more TOD in Arlington, near the Ballston Metro (by: Rpb Goodspeed, creative commons license)  more TOD in Arlington, near the Ballston Metro (by: EPA Smart Growth)

  1016 Half St in DC (by: WDG on DCmud)  Wisconsin Place, in the MD suburbs (by: SK&I Architectural Design on DCmud)

Any one of these buildings might be fine, depending on your taste.  I don't have anything against high-rises per se, in the right contexts.  But taken together, these examples represent a sameness and sterility - always emphasizing building mass over architectural variety and community amenities - that, in my opinion, is soul-deadening.

Why my neighbors oppose density

I live in a city neighborhood called Tenleytown.  It is slowly picking up in residential density and commercial building activity along our main commercial street, Wisconsin Avenue.  But in planning circles the neighborhood is best known for having defeated a modest and very reasonable proposal to build a condo building (reproposed even more modestly as townhouses, but again defeated) a short block from our Metro stop.  I am convinced that a big part of the reason is that Tenleytown residents don't want our neighborhood to become another Friendship Heights, the area around the next Metro stop to the north on the Red Line:

    Friendship Heights, just across the DC line in MD (by: Marcus Heller, creative commons license)

  a building in Friendship Heights (by: Alex Avriette, creative commons license)  Friendship Heights at street level (by: Andrew Bossi, creative commons license) 

Do you blame them?  I don't.  One of the most infuriating aspects of Friendship Heights, which has experienced a huge building boom in the last decade, is that the public has gotten zero green space out of the deal.  None.  Friendship Heights has great high-end shopping, and of course great transit access, but little else to recommend it in the way of public amenities. 

There is also precious little if any meaningful green space in the concrete canyons around the Ballston or Rosslyn Metro stops in Arlington, Virginia (pictured in the first set of photos), even though both areas have exploded with new building space.  The development around Arlington's Orange Line Metro stations - these two and four others - has produced great transportation performance, which I have applauded, but comparatively little to be proud of as a matter of community or design in most (not all) instances.  In fact, the best thing to be said about the design of the new development is not what it has done but what it has not done: it has stayed away from nearby older, single-family neighborhoods.

As eager as I am to see long-overdue remakes of the areas around the new Tysons Corner (VA) stations and the existing New Carrollton (MD) station, I fear that we're basically going to get more of the same.

The right kind of density

Boulder, CO (courtesy of David Crossley & Jim Charlier)We in the smart growth movement need to become much more discriminating in what we support and what we don't.  In particular, we must stop applauding density per se and start advocating what my friend David Crossley, president and founder of the great organization Houston Tomorrow, calls the right kind of density - a built landscape that respects and improves upon its neighborhood instead of overpowering it.

Neal Payton agrees.  Payton is managing principal at the west coast office of the architecture and planning firm Torti Gallas & Partners.  Writing in Urban LAndscape, he explains:

"It is safe to say that all but the most skeptical would consider a commitment to Transit Oriented Development, characterized by equal parts Density, Diversity and Design, to be part of a bold vision for a sustainable Los Angeles. I would argue that TOD should not be the end in itself, but a means to an end. Imagine great public spaces where opportunities to sustain public life become numerous. Then focus on great sidewalks, an integral part of great streets, which in turn are the major constituent of public space. As the most intimate of public spaces inhabited by individuals, sidewalks are where we have our most visceral experiences of the city. TOD represents not only an opportunity to put density near transit, but possibly as importantly, to remake the public realm creating a city of great streets and great sidewalks.

"Yet, many of us in the area have repeatedly been thwarted in our attempts to build in such a manner due to existing zoning regulations, bureaucratic inertia, and well-organized groups of NIMBYs masquerading as environmentalists. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in our focus on the first of those ingredients-density. Too little time is spent on considering and promoting the other two-diversity and design. While many of the NIMBYs can never be won over, others are merely worried that the scale of new development will overwhelm them and diminish the quality of the public realm. Frankly, who can blame them?

"'High-Density' development too often appears monolithic, insular and just plain in-human. Separated from its context so completely, it often appears to have dropped from the sky."

Payton goes on to argue for building a rich pedestrian experience and "a robust mix of uses and price points."  Perhaps most important, he eschews a building-by-building approach to design in favor of a neighborhood approach that produces a varied streetscape and landscape.

I think we should be satisfied with no less, and we should speak out when development proposals deliver less.  In fact, I would go further and argue that we should also insist on affordable housing, green building, green infrastructure, and useable public park space as part of any large-scale development.

"With greater density comes greater responsibility"

The same conversation, by the way, is going on in Vancouver, which is undergoing deliberate densification.  In an article titled "Can Eco-density be beautiful?" green living in Vancouver (by: City of Vancouver)Adele Weder reports an overheard whisper at a recent public hearing: "There's no doubt about it: Eco-density architecture can be as shitty as any other kind."

Vancouver's chief planner Brent Toderian admonishes us all: "With greater density," Toderian says, "comes greater responsibility."  To which I say, "amen."

We also should insist that not all new development be large-scale.  We don't need high density everywhere, though it is appropriate in some places, especially downtowns.  But in many others, moderate density would be an awesome upgrade for the environment and much more respectful of the existing community.  Remember that transportation research shows that we get the largest improvements in reducing per capita driving and emissions as we move from low density to moderate density, and much less improvement as we move from moderate to high.

Mediocrity needn't be a social imperative

Compare the dreary developments at the top of this post with some much more interesting and inviting examples (some of which are quite high density) from other parts of the world, below.  After I present them I'll tell you a little about them.

  new development in Plessis-Robinson, France (by: City of P-R)  new development in Plessis-Robinson, France (by: City of P-R)

  ACROS building, Fukuoka, Japan (by: Oarih, Wikimedia Commons)  ACROS building, Fukuoka, Japan (by: Oarih, Wikimedia Commons)

   Neumarkt redevelopment, Dresden (by: Torsten Maue)  Sony Center, Berlin (c2008 FK Benfield)

The top two are of award-winning new development in Plessis-Robinson, a suburb southwest of Paris.  In the middle are two views of the striking, green-terraced AROSCO building in Fukuoka, Japan, and its related public park (foreground, left).  In the bottom row are redevelopment of the Neumarkt area of Dresden, Germany and the modern Sony Center in downtown Berlin.  Collectively, these developments are varied in design but, in the case of Plessis-Robinson and the Neumarkt, immensely respectful to the character of the surrounding community.  That was less of an issue for the Sony Center and the AROSCO building, both built in downtown environments, but it's notable that both are green buildings with compelling contemporary architecture.  Every one of these examples gives back to its community in the form of great public space.

Now, we have great examples in this country, too, many of which I feature regularly in this blog.  Let's start with another project at a DC-area Metro station:

  Greenbelt Metro Park (by: The Lessard Group)

  site plan for Greenbelt Metro Park (by: The Lessard Group)

In contrast to the mediocre-at-best stuff around transit stations that I showed you earlier, the much more human-scaled and amenity-rich design for new development near the Greenbelt (MD) Metro (just above) looks fabulous.  It has plenty of density, too:  it incorporates 1.2 million square feet of shopping, a million square feet of office space, and a thousand residences, along with a substantial park area and preserved wetlands. 

Here are more examples of density done right:

          Twinbrook Station, Rockville, MD (by: JBG)  Rockville Town Square (by: Dan Cunningham, courtesy of Congress for the New Urbanism) 

  Benedict Commons, Aspen, CO (by: Harry Teague Architects, courtesy of EPA Smart Growth)  Benedict Commons, Aspen, CO (by: Harry Teague Architects, courtesy of EPA Smart Growth)

  view of Station Park Green from CalTrans station (by: EBL&S, SMWN)  Glenwood Park, Atlanta (by: Loren Hynes, Green Street Properties) 

I've written before about the LEED-ND-certified TOD under way for the Twinbrook Metro station in Rockville, Maryland, and nearby Rockville Town Square, shown in the first row of this set.

I bet few of you would guess, though, that Benedict Commons, the rust/wood-colored, already-built complex in Aspen featured in the middle row, has a density of 78 dwelling units per acre.  High density doesn't have to mean mediocre.  Although a unified complex of multi-family dwellings, the Commons is designed with varied facades to create an illusion of several single family homes and fit seamlessly into its neighborhood.  All of its units are priced as affordable workforce housing, too.

The last row shows two more developments that I have featured before, both of which create outstanding community-oriented environments along with outstanding green building characteristics.  On the left is the high-density, transit-oriented Station Park Green in San Mateo, California; on the right is the moderate-density Glenwood Park in Atlanta.

Raising the bar

These examples raise the bar, and it is time that we do the same.  The smart growth community should not cede leadership on its signature issue to innovators in the private sector.  Why in the world should we settle for the same old massive boxes that we got in the 1980s and the 1990s when it is now the twenty-first century? 

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 


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Alex BAug 18 2009 10:01 AM

"...these examples represent a sameness and sterility." Isn't that just par for the course in DC?

When people left the city centers at the dawn of the auto age, they weren't leaving because the cities looked like historic Copenhagen. They left because they were ugly, expensive, dirty, frustrating places to live. The article makes a good point that as we re-densify, we have to try extra hard to do it better the second time. Buildings are typically built better in Europe, but they consistently spend half again as much as we do. They expect the buildings to be around a while. We have to take the same attitude, and can't expect all high density areas to look like the West Village of Manhattan. Sometimes they just look like housing block Tokyo.

(Sorry for the snarky opening comment.)

BorisAug 18 2009 10:58 AM


You must be mistaken. The West Village is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Manhattan exactly because it satisfies most of Benfield's criteria for high-quality density. This neighborhood is almost all low-rise (brownstones) with some apartment buildings. It is also one of the greenest areas in Manhattan below 59th St. If you are looking for "housing block Tokyo" look in Midtown.

I also wonder how Battery Park City would fare in terms of high-quality density. There are a number of well-maintained parks and other public areas, but almost all construction is high-rise.

Tony ChaviraAug 18 2009 03:08 PM

Great post! It's kind of funny, I actually had a conversation with a reporter from La Opinion the other day who was caught slightly off-guard at the concept of community involvement in the development of smart density. Worse yet, his mind almost immediately went to this Phillip K. Dick vision of Los Angeles trapped in catastrophic Bladerunner-like density, and unsurprisingly this isn't the first time that this exact vision has come up in casual conversation.

Maybe a big part of the problem is that advocates need to refocus the smart density grassroots marketing agenda. Needless to say, it's strange that everyone seems to want the same thing, but so few seem to know how to get there; and those who do can't always convey their message simply and directly to others able to implement change at the street level.

Kaid @ NRDCAug 18 2009 03:17 PM

Thanks so much for the comments. Alex and Boris - I think you two actually agree on the West Village, and so do I. I haven't visited Battery Park City in some time, but my memory is that it is fine for its context and may get better as it matures.

Tony, I couldn't agree more about public participation. It's a bit of a dilemma because a distrusting public will not always be as accepting of density as we would like. But in the long run we need their support, even if it means some compromises along the way.

Christopher SpencerAug 18 2009 05:31 PM

Can TOD be done in a way that families with children will want to live there, too?

The primary objection to Smart development in my city -- and I think it may be a valid one -- is that the type of housing that gets built doesn't suit the people who are doing the actually fleeing to the suburbs.

Adult-exclusive buildings go up, the number of kids living in the community declines and the school is shut down: that seems to be a consequence of some of the "green" choices cities are making.

Shouldn't it be a priority to imagine urban environments that are good for kids?

Chuck TaylorAug 19 2009 07:51 AM

Hi,I live in the mountain,s of Eastern Kentucky,Harlan County,I live where there is coal minning,and I want people to know the mine operator’s here have no compassion for communities when they need to haul coal from coal mines down thur our communitie’s creating the most undesireable living condition;s ever.TVA’s ash spill is nothing compared to what the operator’s here do.We live along ky 38 and the coal companies mine their coal and load it on to coal truck’s come off mine property,with mine silth,rock dust,coal dust,mudd,and anything the trucks get on their wheel’s before they enter the road.All that stuff is coming off the truck’s as they travel to their preparation plant’s where they clean the coal and then load it onto train’s to go to utility plant’s.What about our health.What about our home’s.We can’t go out side without having to breath all the stuff.Some even from what I can find even causes cancer and lung problem’s,we actually have worse condition’s then the people who are working there.Where is the State to protect us from this.The Lord know’s we have called a million time’s nothing ever get’s any better,it is only getting worse.I invite you to see for yourselves.They could clean it up some with a truck wash,before they enter the highway.They can pave the haul road’s to the mine load pit where they load the trucks.They can tarp the trucks.They can run the proper deisel fuel.They want do anything.The state can’t make them.I hope and pray some people have mercy on us in the coal minning area’s,as life here is very bad.I hate having to live here I worry about my health,and my neigbor’s health.Please pray for us that the coal operator’s will have mercy on us and our home’s andlean it up.

Kaid @ NRDCAug 19 2009 10:20 AM

Christopher, I think it can, although I don't think it is, very often. Certainly many of our older transit-accessible neighborhoods are family-friendly, including my own. I would cite Portland's Orenco Station and Gresham neighborhoods as great examples of new TODs that are family-friendly.

Even if TODs appeal mostly to singles and empty nesters, though, they still can accommodate a very large portion of our growth. Families with kids are a declining percentage of households as the baby boomers age: whereas in the '60s half of households had school-age children, now it is only one-third. Over the next 20 years the portion is expected to decline further to one-fourth.

Chuck, I have brought your post to the attention of our staff who work on mining issues. You may be interested in reading the blog of my colleague Rob Perks, who posts often on the subject.

Dan StaleyAug 19 2009 01:33 PM

I use this in every one of my presentations:

We don't have a density problem, we have a design problem.



Neal PaytonAug 19 2009 05:16 PM

Thanks for quoting me, Kaid, and for using photos of our Twinbrook project. My comments were meant as a response a whole host of TOD panels I've been on of late, in which all my fellow panelists (architects and developers) want to talk about is density. However, as Christopher (above) observes, we need housing types for a range of family structures (diversity), and we need design that animates the public realm while fitting into the a local context (design). Commentaries like yours are important in keeping up the drumbeat for something better.

цarьchitectAug 22 2009 06:17 AM

It's grossly unfair to contrast pictures of Friendship Heights taken in the winter with selective views with images of exceptional development taken from pedestrian perspectives in the summer. The point stands, though that ordinary residents of Ellicott street hear "development" and think Rosslyn and Stuyvesant Town. On the other hand, it's not as though Tenleytown is an exemplar of green space, with its empty lots and treeless sidewalks.

I'm being too harsh on your examples, since your point is definitely right in general; good design, and appropriate density are necessary to avoid the desolation of 6th Avenue.

But what is appropriate density here? The zoning one block from Tenleytown prohibits buildings larger than duplexes, including rowhouses. It's only reasonable to demand more green space if the area is planned with a continuum of heights and densities. The big missing piece from both DC examples, and what is shown in the good examples, are a lot of 3-6 storey buildings that Tenleytown NIMBYs just will not have. Take a look at their handiwork at Nebraska and Albemarle.

Kaid @ NRDCAug 22 2009 09:08 AM

tsarchitect, one of the Friendship Heights photos was taken in June; one of the Ballston photos in the first set was taken in April.

We basically agree on Tenleytown. 3-to-6-story buildings, with variety, along and near the main street would be great. I wish we had more examples of that in DC-area TODs to show people. We'll never convince the hardest-line NIMBYs, but some people are more moderate. We ignore these issues at our peril.

joshuadfAug 24 2009 01:53 AM

Curious: do you like False Creek North?

Kaid @ NRDCAug 25 2009 12:46 PM

Joshua, I confess to being unfamiliar with False Creek North. Based on what I just scanned from the city of Vancouver's website, it has as much density as the projects I criticized in the post, but also 42 acres of new park space along with townhouses and mid-rise buildings to buffer the high-rises. It also has the waterfront, of course. Those are all assets. I also noticed a new academic study suggesting that the residents are extremely happy living there but would like more affordability, architectural variety, and community amenities. Does that sound fair to you?

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