Photo: Mario Covic

Stop Talking about Density and Start Talking about Place.

Urban Planning

When I say, “density,” I picture a place like Little Italy. It’s a mix of townhouses, walk-up flats, small shops, churches, markets and restaurants. I can walk and bike around or drive my car when I want. I envision bumping into friends, enjoying our new Waterfront Park, drinking craft beer and eating from a variety of restaurants with a smile on my face. 

But, when I say “density” to my mom, who lives in the a country ranch house and rides horses, she pictures downtown towers filled with people, an outright oppression of her outdoor lifestyle. And to my granny, “density” means the Huffman six-packs looming over her North Park neighborhood bungalow. These are the hastily built six-or-so apartment unit complexes on single-family lots throughout San Diego’s Mid-City. Granny’s still bitter.

You can measure the density of all of those things, because that’s all density is: a measurement of how many homes fit within an acre of land. That’s all. An that’s all it should be.

My mom’s ranchettes could be between one home per 20 acres or four homes per acre. My granny’s bungalow is between eight and 14 homes per acre, depending on whether she builds a secondary apartment or “granny flat” in her backyard. The townhouses and condos in Little Italy are between 20 and 60 acres per acre, and downtown’s towers are 80 or more homes per acre. 

That’s how we use “density” to measure different types of homes.

But “density” cannot do more than that. It doesn’t tell us what we need to know to make decisions about the places we want to live, and it misinforms the development discussions we have about our future. We see this in our city needing all of sorts of other restrictions, aside from density, to create different places, such as suburban Sabre Springs, more urban North Park, Little Italy or downtown. We have to add in restrictions for height, setbacks, parking ratios and how the property can be used. These many other requirements are what makes a zoning ordinance an unwiedly tome, perfect for bedtime reading.

San Diego is now open for business and dreams of being a corporate business hub, but housing for middle management is hard to find an build. And, focusing on density alone skews the market for building homes we know we need and the market will build.

Community groups will demand the city’s planning department to keep densities artificially low in the hopes that it will keep new housing away. These lower densities intended to stop growth actually push developers towards building just enough very expensive homes to make their profits. These larger, more expensive units aren’t appropriate for our older streetcar neighborhoods. This creates an unintended consequence: introduction of a different building type that conflicts with a community’s character, or skips a step in transitioning from less urban to more urban.

And, high density itself does not make for better development. Density doesn’t tell us anything about context, such as being in located in the center of a neighborhood, or its edge. Neighborhood-scaled, modest, well-designed density is almost impossible to achieve because of all of those other restrictions mentioned above being out of sync with its context. 

Instead of addressing the issue head on – creating new codes and regulations that would allow the market to build a variety of housing types – we continue to rely on density measurements and conventional Land-Use Based zoning and hope for the best. So far that’s produced luxury towers, Huffman six-packs and large tracks of bland apartments in Kearny Mesa and Mira Mesa. The 50-year history of doing it this way has led to our collective mistrust in our neighborhoods between developers, locals, City Hall, and planning professionals. 

Density and land use zoning were borne of conflicts with the industrial revolution and propagated by old insurance companies’ discriminatory “redlining” practices against minorities in the 1930s. These companies outlined certain areas in red on maps and homes within these areas couldn’t buy insurance, which then became the neighborhoods where marginalized minorities were allowed to live. Having insurance allowed homes to become larger and more expensive, which came to mean lower densities in those neighborhoods. While these discriminatory policies have stopped, our current zoning and density maps reflect and continue old redlining practices to this day.

We need better tools to discuss how we build anything new in San Diego. 

I have long advocated for development regulations called “place-based codes” or “form-based codes” to replace the outdated zoning codes we use today. As seen in Denver, Austin, and Miami, they work better because they are built to help us understand that the type of places we want matters more than arbitrary measurements or ratios. 

We should allow the market to set how much retail, residential or office spaces there is on a given street. We should protect our valuable historic neighborhoods. We should control how buildings transition from new to old. We should understand how to transition between different types of buildings to maintain and cultivate a community’s character. It is clear that our long-held conventional approach isn’t achieving these goals, and we have new development tools that can do these things.

But focussing a conversation on “density” can’t. Remember, it is just a number.

(Thank you Andy Keatts for editing help. First published by Voice of San Diego here)


Urban Planning

We understand that by paying our taxes we can leave our private home, in our private car, and drive down a public street, pull into a public parking space and enjoy a beautiful public park or shop on main street. Cities across the nation are trying to figure out how to finance the ongoing maintenance of these existing public services, utilities, streets and parks. This volatile political issue is in desperate need of innovative solutions as we only have two standard approaches today.

The primary approach, in overly simplistic terms, is cities providing citizens the “general benefit” of public infrastructure via taxes placed in its general fund. State funds and gas taxes fund a majority of our street maintenance. This year, our city of 1.3 million people will generate $1.18 billion in taxes/fees and will use approximately 18% of that to maintain 35,000 acres of parks and 2,800 miles of streets. Additional regional/state/fed revenues help to pay for streets along with new development fees and construction requirements. For reference, police and fire protection costs approximately 68% of my city’s total tax revenue.

The other approach Californians have is the ability to vote for Maintenance Assessment Districts (MADs). Assessed property owners are levied an extra fee on their annual property tax bill to pay for “maintenance of district-wide public facilities.” This increased service is called a “special benefit” beyond the City’s basic “general benefit.” These properties are paying for the public life.

The purpose of a MAD is to generate money to pay for public services. These include the upfront installation and long-term maintenance of parks, landscaping, rights-of-way, street lighting, security, flood control, and stormwater drainage. MAD districts are formed with a higher upfront tax to pay for installation, which is then dropped after two-years to pay for maintenance over many years. In 2015, the city of San Diego’s Parks and Recreation Department will spend $35 million maintains services 62 individual MADs in perpetuity.

The advantage of a MAD in California is that our property taxes are capped under Proposition 13, but MAD funding is outside of this cap so MAD revenues fund MAD projects, and not siphoned off to Sacramento. Another advantage of MADs is that these self-funded districts are protected from the economic pendulum swings that affect municipal budgets. 

The disadvantage of a MAD is that a public vote needed to raise the assessment. It is always considered politically difficult to raise taxes. In addition, due to dropping assessments over time and keeping them at the same rate over many years, older MADs typically underfund the maintenance necessary to keep up with the expected quality of the service.


When planning a long-term investment, it is easy to lose track of how valuable public spaces are in terms of social equity, environment protection, and economic value. Frederick Law Olmstead conducted a study from 1856 to 1873 to track how the City of New York’s initial $13 million investment created a $209 million increase in property values on private land immediately adjacent to Central Park. This increased value stands today. As a rule of thumb, private property is 10 – 20% more valuable when fronting onto a civic space.

While we have well-known rules regarding a city’s inability to ‘take’ property value, we have fewer options for a city’s ability to ‘capture’ increased land values due to the public investment of a new public benefit. To spur economic growth cities tend vacillate between short-term direct financial incentives that subsidize private development (tax exemptions, loan programs, expedited entitlement processing, investing in convention centers and stadium for example) and longer-term investments in public infrastructure (via Development Impact Fees, acquiring land, and building new civic spaces for example). With California leaving the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for Urban Renewal era, we are now on the cusp of a new self-taxing Infrastructure Financing era, which will need innovative models.


The first is a newer MAD model. Since 1994, California has allowed for Property-based Business Improvement Districts (P-BIDs), but few cities have participated in the program. Conventional Business improvement Districts (BIDs) generated revenues from business license fees. These property-based tax assessments are approved in shorter 5-year increments, and are therefore more flexible in increasing, decreasing or eliminating property assessments. These P-BIDs are also more responsive to funding building to maintenance and operation set in specific master plans agreed upon by local stakeholders and city planning departments.

Second, the governor just this week signed SB 628, to update our Infrastructure Financing District program. Cities are able to establish a district, adopt an infrastructure financing plan, issue bonds, and fund projects through tax increment financing upon approval by 55% of the voters. These are intended to be a new era redevelopment districts that finance public capital facilities, brownfield restoration, environmental mitigation, low income housing, transit priority projects, and projects to implement a sustainable communities strategy. With the new low voter threshold, from the 2/3rd majority, these districts should become very popular with cities working to leverage the value of its transit investments.

Third is the Lean Urbanism concept introduced by Andres Duany. Being Lean means to reconfigure the future of urban planning towards lighter, quicker and cheaper approaches to development and entrepreneurship in order to deal more agile with the limits of the 21st century. Lean Urbanism is about innovation and allowing City Halls to streamline the processes that hinder socioeconomic development. These types of places exist in slightly different forms in new Innovation Districts/Zones created in San Francisco and New York. These municipalities recognizes that to appeal to new technology markets it must act in a hands-off fashion as these innovative markets change faster than large municipalities can adjust to.

And fourth are Decision Districts. Admittedly my idea, these districts would reconfigure conventional top-down planning department entitlement and financing processes into neighborhood-based mini-planning departments that coordinate public realm streetscape elements (parking, street trees, walkways, signage, lighting, and encroachments) directly with adjacent private realm elements (building frontages, shopfront improvements, entrances and ground/upper floor building functions). Located one lot deep on a Main Street or neighborhood center, these Districts would self-permit and generate fees to supplement P-BIDs, economic development programs, and Main Street Associations. The goal is enable local authority to implement a specific district-level master plan over a set period of time.


Our cities have the opportunity to craft new financing tools that better reflect our cultural shift towards walkable, bikable, lingerable, sitable, and public transit supported urbanism. Moving from the older, larger-scaled, slum clearing, urban renewal models towards finer-grained financing tools is necessary to build and maintain more complex urban places. For we understand that building towards the social and cultural value found in parks, streets, transit stations and main streets enables our cities to continue generating economic value in the 21st century.