Discussion Paper

Infill Development: Perspectives and Evidence from Economics and Planning

May 28, 2010 | Virginia D. McConnell, Keith Wiley


This paper explores the different perspectives on infill development and its role in urban growth. Despite the intense debate about the potential for and effects of infill development, there is very littleempirical evidence about whether policies to promote it have been effective, about the amount and type of infill development and its effect on surrounding communities. This paper first reviews arguments from both the planning and economics literature on the possible benefits and costs of infill development and the effectiveness of policies to promote it. Then, we summarize the different approaches to measuring infill and provide evidence about the amount of infill that has occurred relative to other development. We also investigate infill characteristics and how its density and size may be different from the development in existing neighborhoods where it is located. Finally, we review the empirical literature on the effects of infill on property values in receiving communities, drawing out implications for policy and suggesting directions for future research.

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.