Denser development that incorporates a variety of land uses is the most efficient way to accommodate future population growth.
That's the opinion of Michael P. Buckley of Columbia University in New York City, who was part of a panel at the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) November meeting in San Francisco.
With the population projected to rise by more than 60 million people over the next 20 years, and with the number of one and two person, childless households increasing simultaneously, greater density is the most efficient way to address urban housing needs, Buckley said.
Such dense, mixed-use development accommodates talented workers seeking to live in areas convenient to employment, culture, shopping and recreation, he said.
"Demographics, emerging lifestyles and workplace trends favor higher density development," according to Buckley. "Density can generate more diverse neighborhoods and a higher quality of life, giving communities that support it a competitive edge."
While increased density seems to be the answer to the problems of future growth in urban areas, negative perceptions can foil even the best plans.
Widespread public acceptance of denser development hinges on the creation of effective methods for measuring density, showing various forms of density, and presenting the economic benefits of density, Buckley said.
During her presentation at the ULI seminar, Amy Liu, deputy director at the Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Urban Policy in Washington, provided data showing the propensity of sprawl throughout the United States.
For instance, in one analysis, the institution found that between 1982 and 1997, the amount of urbanized land rose by 47 percent, while the U.S. population rose by 17 percent.
Out of 280 metro areas, only 17 became more dense, reducing the amount of land to accommodate growth.
Other institution research found that between 1979 and 1999, the share of office space in downtowns dropped from 74 percent to 58 percent, while the share of office space in outlying areas rose from 26 percent to 42 percent.
In 1999, New York and Chicago were the only metro areas with a majority of office space in downtown locations. Philadelphia and Miami had the most office space in far-flung areas.
"We know that sprawl and decentralization contributes to the decline of entire cities," Liu said. "Healthy cities are those with healthy cores, which have high density."
"How a region grows physically effects how it grows economically, and how it grows economically affects how it grows physically," she said.
In the knowledge-based economy, the communities that are the most successful in attracting and retaining talented, educated workers are those that focus on creating vibrant, dense live-work-play environments, Liu said.
"Higher density leads to higher productivity," according to Liu. "Innovation industries such as technology, educational institutions and medical institutions tend to be in dense urban areas."
Colin Shepherd, vice president of Hines Interests in Los Angeles, underscored the need to meet worker demand for better-connected communities providing shorter distances between housing and jobs.
Droves of baby boomers are set to retire in the years ahead, and the generation following them is much smaller, thus shrinking the workforce, he said.
"I believe that by 2010, the employee will be king, and employees will want to live in high-quality places," Shepherd said. "As companies compete for employees, it's important to keep density in mind."
Despite a slip in some downtown populations following the September 11 terrorist attacks, several urban areas have experienced downtown population increases since 1990.
For instance, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that Houston, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Portland (Ore.), Atlanta, Memphis and San Diego all experienced greater percentage increases in their downtown populations than in their entire urban areas over the past decade.
Other cities, including Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit gained downtown population while losing population as a whole.
The movement of young, childless professionals and empty nesters back to downtown areas is driving demand for dense developments in downtown areas, said Alfred G. Neely, executive vice president of Charles E. Smith Residential in Arlington, Va.
The people moving into downtown areas are seeking to combine culture and entertainment access with maintenance-free living, Neely said.
"We are doing a lot of redevelopment, due to the amenity-rich environment of urban areas," Neely said.
The missing market segment for dense, downtown living continues to be families with children, according to Neely.
"The school issue (negative perceptions of inner- and central-city public education systems) has not been resolved," he said. "Until we fix that, we will not get families back downtown."