The meaning of residential density

Dave Kelley is an architect and member of the Chico Planning Commission

Density is the quantity of something per unit measure, expressed in static numerical terms. It has no heart or soul.

Residential density is defined in Chico’s Title 19 Land Use and Development Regulations as 1) “Density or gross density,” and 2) “Vertical density.” The first definition is the most common instance and is calculated as “The number of dwellings per gross acre of developable land.” Now a gross acre includes the land up to the centerline of bounding streets and public right of ways, so the usable area for dwellings is always less than the actual density number.

In 1993 a land use survey was done for Chico’s General Plan (page 3-21). At that time the overall residential gross density in the entire Planning Area was about five units per gross acre. Many of the traditional neighborhoods, such as the Avenues had densities ranging from 6 to 9 units per gross acre.

Today’s residential densities are on the increase. Contributing factors include land prices, affordability goals, efficiency issues, environmental concerns and urban growth boundaries.

Some say the increased density is not enough, while others say it’s too much. This is where the discussion always begins. Should we live four feet away from our neighbors? Five? Ten? What about replacing the ranch style layout with more two-story houses? What about squeezing retail and commercial tighter, leaving more space for home life? Or should we revert to the older historical density numbers?

Before answering the questions above, consider for a moment the density calculation components and process. The primary component is dwelling units. This formula does not allow for bedrooms and/or the actual number of people living within those units.

The missing ingredient is the quality of life that residential density brings or takes away. Since we spend most of our time in or around our houses the focus should be on residential neighborhoods, and neighborhoods which are based on people, not on mathematical numbers assigned to the land. Life has heart and soul, numbers don’t.

I’ve looked at various city zoning designation maps and at tabulated lists of projected housing quantities. If this information was combined into simple population maps it would assist a much needed community wide discussion. These maps should show full residential build out within the existing urban growth boundary. Let’s see the minimum, average and maximum population conditions so we have a basis for comparison. These new visual imaging tools will help our collective capability to envision the future. It’s like a completed jigsaw puzzle where the individual pieces make sense once in place.