Infill: A Necessary Part of the Future

One recurring theme on this blog has been infill, or adding buildings to existing neighborhoods. So for example, that means developing under-used land — in the form of parking lots, vacant lots, driveways, or even some existing structures — into things like new housing.

A dilapidated parking lot in Provo. This space could be upgraded with something like a pocket neighborhood

A dilapidated residential parking lot in Provo. This space could be upgraded with something like a pocket neighborhood or Katrina Cottages without touching existing buildings. Or, some of these very low quality apartment buildings could be replaced with something better and higher density.

A recent report by the EPA stresses the importance of infill:

These examples of residential infill—or building new homes in previously developed areas—can help to expand housing choices, make neighborhoods livelier, increase the tax base, safeguard rural landscapes, reduce infrastructure costs, and protect natural resources. Infill can also provide significant environmental benefits when compared with conventional greenfield1 suburban development— including reduced transportation emissions from new residents and reduced stormwater pollution washing off of new roadways and other paved surfaces.

The report goes on to explore how prevalent infill is and where there might be room for improvement.

In Provo, we need only to step outside our front doors to see opportunities for improvement. Big driveways, parking lots, poorly built track homes, and even wide streets could all be converted to higher performing development. And while Provo is laudably making this happen in commercial zones, that’s not even close to sufficient. Ultimately, the city must make infill a reality in existing residential neighborhoods — where there is acre after acre of useable land — if it wants to outperform or just keep up with other growing Utah County communities.

This is the back of my house. It's mostly paved and could easily accommodate two single family homes. This type of set up is extremely common in Provo and offers an opportunity for the city to significantly increase its housing stock.

This is the back of my house. It’s mostly paved but could easily accommodate two additional single family homes. This type of set up is extremely common in Provo and offers an opportunity for the city to significantly increase its housing stock.

Among other things, the report includes a map (page 9) that shows how much of new development is infill. Provo is on the lower end of the spectrum. Significantly, it’s also experiencing less infill than the Salt Lake metro region. That’s bad news for a city that needs to compete for talent. It’s also bad news for a city that is landlocked and surrounded by other cities because it means people are forced to reside in other municipalities.

If people in Provo want all the new families to move to cheap suburbs like Eagle Mountain, they should do nothing. But if they want to make room for a new generation, spots like this run down residential parking lot offer ample room for new housing. The roadblocks to development must be cleared.

If people in Provo want all the new families to move to cheap suburbs like Eagle Mountain, they should do nothing and stay the current course. But if they want to make room for a new generation, spots like this run down residential lot offer ample room for new housing. The roadblocks to infill must be cleared.

There are many obstacles — political will, zoning, infrastructure limitations, etc. — to making residential infill happen. But in the end if those obstacles become excuses to do nothing they will end up being the very reasons that Provo was beaten in the race for talent, prosperity and growth by other cities.

The city itself isn't going to build hundreds of new homes in neighborhoods. Instead, it needs to actively shape legislation that makes it enticing for developers to create infill. This parking lot on 9th East is yet another place that is currently offering few benefits to the community but that has the potential to be something much better.

The city itself isn’t going to build hundreds of new homes in neighborhoods. Instead, it needs to actively shape legislation that makes it enticing for developers to create infill. This parking lot on 9th East is yet another place that is currently offering few benefits to the community but that has the potential to be something much better.

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5 Comments

Filed under building, construction, Development

5 responses to “Infill: A Necessary Part of the Future

  1. bjs

    This is an interesting, if not touchy topic. Time after time, developers produce ideas for infill, tearing down old replacing with new, and density increase, but NIMBY is the ever present foe to development, infill, and density. People like their .25 acre lot with plenty of space. People like their parking spaces per unit to be high.
    I agree that in order to grow, Provo will have to build upward, fill in the spaces, convert agrarian space to residential/commercial but the residents have a long way to go to understand that large percentages of Provo is a ‘newlywed starter community’ where people move out in order to up-size, and a workforce moving into the city is a rarity. Shrinking High School numbers are just some of the proof. What will it take for people to buy into increased density and commerce in their back yards? Time will tell.

  2. I think the sole problem is the will to do so. Everything on paper is amendable. Even with the strictest of zoning rules, you just have to get your special uses approved by a committee (people) and then have those recommendations formally approved by the council (more people).

    From a development standpoint, the paperwork and time consumption of the process would be brutal, but having to deal with however many people in the process is the unbearable part.

    • I agree. I would like to think that most planning staffs are progressive thinking and would love to see more infill, more density. The problem is the planning commission and the city council . . . and their problem is the public. If people (developers, planners) had the will power and took the time to get the support of neighborhoods and educate them when a good project is coming in, then this kind of stuff would be possible. This rarely happens.
      Most developers can’t afford taking the time to deal with neighborhoods and so they walk away from good projects completely or scale them down and replace them with the status quo.

  3. Pingback: People Actually Want Infill | (pro(vo)cation)

  4. Pingback: Density Is Needed Everywhere In Provo | (pro(vo)cation)

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