Land, Density and Resilience

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source:

Flood-prone areas of south Hampton Roads. Source: (Click for detail.)

One more takeaway from the Resilient Virginia launch conference yesterday: All other things being equal, more compact communities are more resilient communities.

Like Bacon’s Rebellion, Cooper Martin, program director of the Sustainable Cities Institute, is a big fan of Joe Minicozzi and his maps and graphics showing how dramatically land value-per-acre varies between core urban areas, suburbs and the countryside. Densely settled urban cores have land values that are literally a hundred times higher per acre than low-density shopping centers and large-lot subdivisions.

In my commentary, I have focused mainly upon the fiscal folly of building disconnected, low-density development. The infrastructure — the roads, utilities, sidewalks and other amenities — are more expensive per household to maintain. But Martin added a new dimension when addressing the Resilient Virginia conference yesterday. Low-density development makes it more expensive to harden homes and businesses against disruption and catastrophe. When the taxable value of land is high, it’s easier to support expensive investments to protect that land than when the value of the land is low.

So, to take Hampton Roads, which I have written much about recently, resilience planners need to take into account not only which areas are flood-prone, but which urbanized areas have land values high enough to make them economically justifiable to protect.

It’s going to be gut-wrenching and agonizing, but local officials must come to grips with the reality that much of the development that has taken place is fiscally indefensible. The region cannot possibly afford to protect every low-density subdivision in every flood-prone region — much less the roads and bridges providing connectivity for them — no matter how loudly unhappy homeowners howl at the prospect of being abandoned. The sooner local officials begin making these determinations, the sooner developers will stop building in indefensible areas and the fewer the naive homeowners who will be harmed.

As a practical matter, Hampton Roads municipalities will have to evolve to a pattern of denser development on higher land. Where development exists in flood-prone areas, there will have to be sufficient density to justify spending millions of dollars on protective measures. Fortunately, this is a slow-motion problem. The region has decades to adapt. But it needs to begin now — when complex and painful decisions must be made, decades can slip away in no time at all.


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7 responses to “Land, Density and Resilience

  1. “Fortunately, this is a slow-motion problem. The region has decades to adapt.”

    You haven’t spent a Spring or Summer in Norfolk recently, have you?

  2. I think insurance companies and the Federal subsidized insurance program will take care of these “hard” decisions if they can ever get a map printed out showing where the flooding will occur.

    Mortgage companies are not going to provide loans for property in the inundation zone – and that will be true also for public infrastructure – as taxpayers will become liable instead of insurance companies.

    but I had asked before and will ask again – define what “resilience” looks like in terms of infrastructure – in terms of how you determine what infrastructure and properties are affected – and then how much money is required to “harden” – and who will pay for that…

    so.. for instance, if I wanted a “number” for the cost to Hampton for “resilience” how would you get that number ?

  3. if you don’t have a number .. how can you really plan or budget?’s a thought… If you added up the costs for all the Hampton Roads in the world – would it total up to trillions?


    is there any kind of a realistic cost-benefit between the costs of resilience and the costs to take steps to reduce pollution that will cause climate change?

    gee.. what a concept…

  4. “I think insurance companies and the Federal subsidized insurance program will take care of these “hard” decisions if they can ever get a map printed out showing where the flooding will occur.”

    You haven’t been paying attention to what’s occurring in Congress when they actually try to reform the flood insurance program, do you?

    I suppose you can argue that it’s a two steps forward, one step back process, where at least some reform is getting moved along, even if Congress takes a backstep from time to time.

    These communities, Republican or Democrat, expect to be bailed out. The question will just be how.

  5. As is often the case, there is a “wag the dog” syndrome going on.

    Please remember that after Hurricane Andrew destroyed South Florida beach fronts, Florida responded by taking over and LOWERING insurance rates for constructing homes on the coastline and destroying the protective sand dunes. Please remember that after dykes burst, thereby flooding New Orleans from Hugo rains, the city responded by demanding that new housing in wards 10 feet below sea level had to be built three feet off the ground. By the math some Americans learned in school that means the billions spent rebuilding — in both South Florida and New Orleans — are today the next bailouts waiting to happen. Living quarters seven feet below where nature wanted water to reach balance doesn’t save much even BEFORE rising seas due to climate change are considered.

    The French were smart enough to build the French Quarter on the high ground but we enjoy American exceptionalism — which Webster describes as nationalistic stupidity.

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