Modest Densification

Modest Densification: Land Use Strategies For Increasing Environmental Sustainability

Housing Affordability Institute’s Modest Densification series highlights how zoning modernization through modest densification can increase housing inventory, affordability, and access.  

Modest densification is most known for how it can be used to increase housing affordability and access, however, this type of zoning reform can also be a tool for fostering more environmentally sustainable communities. As housing demand continues to grow, modest densification has found support from those who want to see a growing population housed in an environmentally sustainable way.

Driven To Better Environmental Outcomes

Making inefficient use of land can be costly to the environment, in addition to the added costs to homebuyers and renters. As California has shown, if housing is not allowed in a specific in-demand area, development will be pushed into other nearby areas, with potentially detrimental impacts to the environment:

“In California, restrictive zoning, which also drives up high construction costs, pushed much of the state’s housing development into wildland-urban interface where land is cheaper and easier to develop—but more vulnerable to wildfire. The confluence of development in fire-prone areas and the increasing intensity of California’s wildfires has resulted in five of the most damaging fire seasons in California history, setting new records in acres burned and damages to residential property.” 

Velasco, Gabi and Cohen, Oriya. “Three Ways Zoning Can Advance Housing and Climate Justice.” Housing Matters. March 2, 2022.

While California is an extreme example, large lot requirements, common in growing communities, allow less density per acre. Some critics of status quo zoning say current zoning practices create a process in which local governments encourage inefficient use of land. 

Using Modest Densification For Better Land Use Outcomes

Some critics of traditional zoning say it has contributed to urban sprawl. The proliferation of large lot single-family homes has led to increased commuting distances and heightened reliance on personal vehicles. The high cost of housing itself can contribute to sprawl as buyers who are unable to afford housing close to their job or school can be forced to move further out to find more affordable options. 

In greenfield development spaces, new housing platted via modest densification is a more efficient use of land than status quo zoning would from the moment the community grows. 

The positive impact on the environment may be even more pronounced with redevelopment opportunities (brownfield developments). New housing built to today’s energy code will be more efficient and resilient than the older structures they replace. Additionally, new developments will be built in accordance with current environmental protection, such are stormwater management and erosion control, which may not have existed when these earlier developments were platted.

Combating NIMBYism Disguised As Environmentalism

Environmental reviews have become a tool for those who oppose new housing to block needed new homes, apartments, condos, student housing and senior living centers. This happens even when this new housing is built to today’s environmental standards.

In California, roughly half of all housing in recent years received objection on the grounds of the project having an adverse impact on the environment, according to a report from the Center for Jobs and the Economy. This same report showed that less than 13 percent of environmental legal challenges to new housing came from groups that existed before filing the challenge.

In Minnesota, Minneapolis’s lauded 2040 Plan was invalidated by courts after a group, Minneapolis for Everyone, challenged the modest densification proposal. Minneapolis for Everyone was a group formed with the intent of blocking the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan.

Conclusion: Zoning Reform and Sustainability

Zoning reform via modest densification can be a powerful instrument for promoting environmentally sustainable development. Through the optimization of land use, zoning reform can mitigate the environmental impacts of urbanization. By adding guardrails to environmental reviews, states can ensure the environment is protected while still adding housing for a growing population.