Compact Development Design

Recent trends in population and economics are placing an ever increasing demand for alternatives to low density, single-family detached housing. These trends include:

The dependence on the automobile and its associated costs, coupled with the desire to reduce home-to-work commutes have increased interest in alternative types of housing. Demand for alternative development patterns, homebuyers, builders, planners and architects must address the need to provide attractive higher density housing opportunities that satisfy the desires of current homebuyers. Municipalities also need to consider how to ensure that higher density housing meets the needs of their residents and remains an asset to their municipality.

Development that incorporates compact development design, both higher density and key community design factors, can contribute positively to the character of a municipality. Such development can take advantage of transit, utilities, and high land values that are found in centrally-situated suburban and urban locations, and can improve walkability.

Compact development can also be combined with appropriately-scaled retail and commercial activities that can provide residents with convenient services that do not always require automobile use. Such retail and commercial land uses are often placed on the outer perimeter of higher-density developments, where they can also take advantage of customers on adjacent roadways. Such developments can involve densities of greater than five dwelling units per acre.

In designing compact residential developments, it is important to consider the needs of residents for identity, safety, personalization, privacy, convenience and communal space, as well as compatibility with surrounding development and landscapes. Designers and builders must consider what people do around their homes, how they interact with each other in the neighborhood, where children play, and how all this relates to their existing surroundings. The purpose of this tool is to provide ideas and guidelines that can help achieve these goals.


Higher density residential development that incorporates proper design elements can provide the following benefits:

Compact development


The following limitations may be associated with design considerations for compact development projects. These factors could act as a deterrent for developers attempting innovative designs unless they are addressed during the planning and design phase.

How To Use This Tool

Successful compact development using higher densities depends on cooperation between municipalities and developers. Municipalities should review their land use regulations and identify any deterrents or disincentives to developers, such as rigid requirements for plan approvals, special review or conditional use procedures, inflexible financial guarantees, and other impediments to a streamlined review process.

To ensure an efficient development process, the municipality should:

The process for preparing and adopting a plan and design guidelines for compact development would include:

A zoning ordinance amendment may be needed to accommodate compact development or to incorporate alterative residential uses in an existing district. Amendments to the subdivision and land development ordinance should also be adopted to ensure appropriate design standards in higher density residential areas, along with ensuring that all information required to review development plans is specified in the plan submission requirements.

Compact development should take the following factors into consideration in order to accommodate density while maintaining community character:

Objectives — The design considerations for compact development should achieve the following objectives to make the community livable:

Compact developmentExamples

The Eagleview Town Center in Uwchlan Township is a successful example of both higher density residential development and mixed-use development. Eagleview contains a mix of different dwelling types including townhouses, apartments, and age-restricted retirement housing as well as commercial office and retail uses.

Related References

The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, Act 247, enables municipalities to establish land use controls that can accommodate residential uses of various densities. References throughout the MPC indicate that diversity and community development are valid considerations in local planning and regulation. Article III, Section 301(2.1) promotes "different dwelling types and at appropriate densities for households of all income levels;" Article V, Section 503(5) promotes "flexibility, economy and ingenuity…in accordance with modern and evolving principles of site planning and development;" and Article VI, Section 604(4) requires a "range of multifamily dwellings in various arrangements…".

Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission — Realizing Density, Strategies for Compact Suburban Development (2004)

Urban Land Institute — Higher-Density Development (2005)

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