The Power of Urban Density

New study of Madison development shows how smart growth greatly reduces government costs.

By - Apr 24th, 2015 03:27 pm


Density is a good deal for taxpayers. Many studies have found that that “smart growth,” meaning more compact patterns of development, is associated with reduced local government spending on a per-capita basis. Suburban and exurban sprawl and sprawling suburban-style development results in far higher per-capita costs for municipal services.

The latest study to look at this was conducted in Madison, WI. Smart Growth America, helped by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is working to develop a fiscal impact methodology that measures the increased cost efficiencies realized through denser development, and which can be “easily adapted and used by local practitioners across the country,” as the group notes. The City of Madison agreed to become a case study community to help develop this methodology.

The study looked at the the Pioneer District in Madison, which is approximately 1,400 acres in size and now largely vacant. The study, for starters, looked at two scenarios: a“base” scenario reflects the current plan for the development of the Pioneer District. A second scenario, called “Plus 50” assumes 50 percent higher density on certain parcels within the District.

Three more scenarios were then added. SGA introduced two higher density scenarios, which assume the same development as the base scenario and the “Plus 50” scenario respectively, but on approximately 500 fewer acres. They are called the “Compact” and the “Compact Plus 50” scenarios. Finally, SGA created a “Low Density” uber-sprawl scenario, which assumes the same development as the base scenario but on approximately 1,000 acres more.

The study then looked at projected municipal costs in such categories as road building and maintenance, water and sewer mains, fire and emergency medical protection and school transportation. The results showed that the most compact development of the five options cost $518 per capita for city services versus $607 for the least compact option, meaning the least compact option costs 17.1 percent more. For local school expenses the most compact option would cost $597 per capita versus $701 for the least compact option, meaning the least compact option cost 17.4 percent more.

This likely understates the difference in costs, the study notes because the study was not able to model the full range of municipal services. “Solid waste and recycling pickup, for example, is almost certainly less efficient in low density environments because of the greater distance, and therefore time and fuel between pickups. Police protection may also become less expensive in dense, walkable environments because of a need for fewer patrol cars and vehicle fuel and maintenance costs,” the study noted.

Categories: Real Estate

One thought on “The Power of Urban Density”

  1. BB says:

    Just an FYI – you might want to fix the second sentence – “Dozens, perhaps even dozens of studies…”

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