Infill Development: Perspectives and Evidence from Economics
June 11, 2010
In the effort to encourage “smart growth” in urban areas, infill development (new development in existing urban area) has arisen as a popular solution to decrease sprawl and revitalize depressed neighborhoods. However, infill development as envisioned by its proponents has proved difficult to achieve in practice, for a host of economic, political, and regulatory reasons.
In “Infill Development: Perspectives and Evidence from Economics and Planning,” authors Virginia McConnell and Keith Wiley examine the advantages of and barriers to the practice, as well as the characteristics of actual infill relative to existing development. They also review the evidence on the effectiveness of current infill policies.
There is no agreed upon definition of exactly what constitutes infill development in an urban area. This study reviews possible definitions and applies these to measure the amount of infill compared to non-infill development in one suburban jurisdiction. Infill development tends to be denser than new development in general, but infill does not tend to have higher density than its surrounding existing neighborhoods. There is some evidence that the best place for higher density infill development is in suburban areas or in new towns at the edge of existing cities.
The authors also find little evidence that existing policies to promote infill projects, including urban growth boundaries and priority funding areas, have worked. This may be due to barriers associated with local government control over land use, economic costs, household preferences for housing types, and neighborhood opposition.
One plausible reason infill development has been slow to take hold is that costs tend to be local whereas benefits are regional. This suggests that policies that attempt to distribute the costs of new development more broadly could make these plans more successful in the future.