In 2014, “density” might well have been the word of the year in local government in Orange County.
Much of the debate about development in our communities boils down to preferences and emotions about the scale and density of proposed projects. (How tall? How many new units per acre?)
In 2015, the density debate is likely to rage on. But what is it about greater density that evokes such strong opinions?
Change in any facet of life is hard. When it comes to change in our neighborhoods, this is especially true. We become accustomed to a particular way of life and patterns of behavior, and we find comfort in these routines. But sometimes change is necessary. As a community professing to hold progressive values, such as environmental sustainability, socioeconomic diversity, and livability, we sometimes should embrace change to uphold and live out these values.
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That means increasing the density of commercial and residential development. A commitment to no change is a firm commitment to change the very people who make up our community by forcing young and lower-income residents out and welcoming only those who are wealthy and older. There are several critical reasons why this is the case.
First, allowing for greater residential density in some areas will increase the supply of housing available in our community. The rural buffer has prevented sprawl and the environmental degradation that accompanies it, and development policies have made adding new housing difficult. As a result, home prices and rents have gone up and up and up, pricing many people out of our community. Greater residential density will add supply to help meet the increased demand in our housing market, causing prices and rents to stagnate and fall. Increased density can help address the major affordability problem we face and help us to preserve and grow the diversity of our community.
Second, allowing for greater density in commercial and residential development will enable valuable members of our community to live and work right here in Orange County. Many of us might have originally chosen to live in Chapel Hill/Carrboro because of the high quality of life, exemplified by a vibrant student life, arts and music scene, and abundance of unique, local businesses. Yet, as home prices and rents have increased, the people who offer us these amenities have been forced to live elsewhere, taking their contributions to our community with them. Without a critical mass of density in downtown and other strategic areas of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, many of the local businesses we love struggle to stay open or are forced to close their doors because they simply don’t have enough customers located nearby.
Third, increased density will actually improve the quality of life for our entire community, particularly if we plan for density well. Greater density improves walkability by locating services and amenities near residential areas, allowing for healthier lifestyles, greater economic returns, more vibrancy, and a more sustainable path forward for the future of our towns.
Concerns that developing greater density will negatively impact the quality of life and affect the character of our community are misplaced. If anything, forestalling greater density will negatively impact both of these things. Our county is a great place to live because of the vibrancy provided by people who will get priced out if we cannot reduce housing costs.
When we talk about our quality of life, we must ask, “ Quality of life for whom?” Rejecting denser development will not improve the quality of life for our lower-income neighbors; rather, greater density provides more housing opportunities in the right locations to improve their quality of life.
And when those who oppose greater density talk about “maintaining the character of the community,” what is it that they actually mean by that? It seems to us to be code for maintaining a community of aging, suburban-style houses designed to attract only one type of people and families.
Our community values compel us to embrace local planning policies that promote greater density. Achieving greater environmental sustainability, socioeconomic diversity, and livability means getting serious about our planning processes, observing the externalities they have created, and working to foster an inclusive, diverse, forward-thinking community.
Travis Crayton and Molly De Marco are editors of the blog OrangePolitics.org and live in Chapel Hill.