Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Understanding Resistance to Neighborhood Densification

One of the most popular concepts in urban planning is increasing neighborhood density as a means to make cities more efficient and sustainable. Yet, while much of this research focuses on the physical aspects of the planning process, the responses of residents living in those neighborhoods will significantly impact the efficacy of legislation attempting to institute policies. Shohreh Nematollahi, Reena Tiwari, and David Hedgecock examine public resistance to urban density in their article, “Desirable Dense Neighborhoods: An Environmental Psychological Approach for Understanding Resistance to Densification.”

Through the lens of environmental psychology, Nematollahi et al. seek to gain a better sense of what residents of specific types of neighborhoods consider to be the benefits and drawbacks of increasing neighborhood density. The researchers selected Canning Bridge, Cannington, and Willard—three neighborhoods in Perth, Australia—which were identified in 2010 by the Western Australian Planning Commission as residential density targets that could be developed into high density neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were of interest because they are all transit-oriented developments (TODs), designed to maximize access to public transportation.

The researchers used a survey that asked residents to assess their perceptions of neighborhood density. Residents could respond either positively or negatively to expected outcomes of changing density levels and were asked to explain the reasons behind their choices.

Residents of all three neighborhoods listed “a diverse mix of people in the precinct” as one of the least desirable features of a dense neighborhood. About 30 percent of respondents from Canning Bridge—which had the oldest dominant age group and the highest income residents of the three neighborhoods—listed increased diversity as a negative aspect of increased density, the highest negative response by any neighborhood to any feature listed in the survey. The residents’ explanations showed that they were afraid of unpredictable social interactions. They were also concerned that added diversity would lead to increased crime rates.

Residents of all three neighborhoods tended to respond negatively to increasing the availability of different housing options and to the development of different architectural styles in their neighborhoods. In contrast, physical changes to the neighborhood itself were viewed in a far more positive light—well designed pedestrian and bike paths, high quality landscaping, and closer proximity to shops and public transportation all received a “less preferred” response below 10 percent from each neighborhood.

Residents were also asked to choose among five different neighborhood characteristics. In all three study neighborhoods, more than 45 percent of those surveyed chose a medium density option that featured some combination of townhouses and apartments fewer than four stories high. These preferences were followed by low density neighborhoods made up of predominantly detached homes, and then by high density neighborhoods of apartments more than four stories high.

In recent years, the Australian planning systems have placed a greater emphasis on increased neighborhood density, focusing on the economic and environmental benefits of this strategy. This research demonstrates that people’s views of increased density could create a significant roadblock if urban planners seek to increase density beyond what residents see as the desirable level for their neighborhoods. The researchers also note that active resistance to densifying a neighborhood will likely fade over time as residents become acclimated to their new surroundings and the interests against density become more diffuse.

It is important for urban planners and policymakers, in Australia and elsewhere, to understand that active resistance to neighborhood densification will likely be based on an aversion to increased social interactions with diverse populations. With that in mind, policymakers will have to be mindful of the social discomfort that can accompany urban land use reforms.

Article Source: Nematollahi, Shohreh, Reena Tiwari, and David Hedgecock. “Desirable Dense Neighborhoods: An Environmental Psychological Approach for Understanding Community Resistance to Densification.” Urban Policy and Research, 2015.

Featured Photo: cc/(Robert Herhold, photo ID: 61816984, from iStock by Getty Images)

Tom Houseman
Tom (MPP'17) is a staff writer with a focus on urban affairs. He is interested in urban policy and inequality.

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