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Infill Development in My Back Yard? Strategies for Winning Infill Development Support


Infill development, by definition, brings change to its neighborhood.  It may be an understatement to say that existing residents often view any proposed changes next door with suspicion.  But a number of communities have developed exemplary programs to encourage and win support for infill development that respects neighborhood character and adds to the community.  You’ll find some of my favorites below.

From the abundant examples that I found here and elsewhere, I’m guessing that the concept of infill development has already crossed your radar screen.  Although we may think of infill primarily in urban settings, we are also seeing infill take place in rural centers, particularly limited areas of more intensive rural development.  Briefly, infill development is the process of developing vacant or under-used parcels in the midst of areas that are already largely developed. 

Infill development seems to be gaining momentum here in Washington State, partly in response to Washington’s Growth Management Act, which directs growth to urban growth areas (primarily areas of existing development).  In addition, the potential market for infill development is expanding as the baby boom generation retires, and many 20- and 30-somethings remain single, delaying or forgoing parenthood.  In fact, only 20 percent of today’s households are married couples with children, down from 40 percent in 1970. (Source: Five things the Census Revealed about America in 2011.)  These groups are more likely than other groups to prefer smaller and maintainable housing, convenient transit, and proximity to urban services and attractions.  Also, an American Institute of Architects survey finds that infill development is holding up better than most development in recessionary times.

Here are a few of the approaches that communities are using to help win acceptance for new infill development in existing neighborhoods by increasing understanding of how it will look and fit into neighborhoods, by signaling the design quality expected, and/or by providing a clear benefit:

  • Portland, OR has an exceptional Infill Design Toolkit with strategies for addressing typical neighborhood concerns and a set of neighborhood design guidelines.  The city also offers multifamily housing prototypes that signal design expectations and illustrate designs that can win fast track approval.  Also, take a look at Infill Design Strategies: Portland’s Experience, an excellent, self-explanatory PowerPoint that illustrates Portland’s design approach and its infill design principles for single family, rowhouse, courtyard, cottage, and other housing types.
  • Bellingham, WA employed its Infill Housing Toolkit slide show to effectively illustrate its standards and the desired appearance of a variety of infill housing types.  Bellingham also sponsored a citizen planning academy on achieving infill while enhancing character.  The purpose was to educate citizens about infill and to engage them in refining the Toolkit.
  • The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (CA) employs educational videos and excellent photo simulations of phased infill development to illustrate the potential to transform an area over time.
  • Spokane, WA created a nifty self-guided infill tour of local examples to demonstrate how well-designed infill projects can fit different types of areas. The examples may not all fit your community, but it’s a clever approach.
  • The Metropolitan Transit Commission (San Francisco Bay area) features a number of "TODcasts" that provide virtual tours of transit oriented development (a variation on infill development).
  • In recessionary times, some communities are promoting infill projects on foreclosed properties.  This Planetizen post offers an interesting example: Redfields: A New Flavor of Infill.

Please visit our new, improved Infill Development webpage to find guidebooks, design ideas, ordinances, tools and strategies, incentives, studies, and other resources on infill development.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Sue Enger

About Sue Enger

Sue served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants for many years and wrote about a variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.