Thursday, December 11, 2014

Do Lawrence and Douglas County need growth management?

Do Lawrence and Douglas County need growth management?


Growth management is one approach to planning.  This approach recognizes that the development industry tends to overbuild.  Growth management overcomes this tendency by restricting the growth in the supply of housing or retail space or any other type of development to just the amount that satisfies the growth in demand.

Table 1 looks at the changes in households and housing units in Douglas County and in Lawrence from 2000 to 2013.  It is clear that the area experienced significant overbuilding of housing during this period.


Table 1: Growth in Households and Housing Units
Douglas County, Kansas
Housing Units
Surplus Units
Surplus Units per year
Lawrence, Kansas
Housing Units
Surplus Units
Surplus Units per year
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census


From 2000 to 2013, Douglas County grew by 4,912 households, but it allowed developers to build 6,810 homes.  This generated a surplus of 1,898 homes over the period or 146 surplus homes per year.

From 2000 to 2013, Lawrence grew by 3,038 households, but it allowed developers to build 4,532 homes.  This generated a surplus of 1,494 homes over the period or 115 surplus homes per year.


Planning Implications

Lawrence and Douglas County have seen a long-term process of overbuilding by developers.  This long history of overbuilding is compelling evidence that the development industry does not police itself well, nor does the current approach to planning which simply zones land and assumes that the development industry will pace itself so as to match the expansion and contraction of demand.

This overbuilding harms the community by causing disinvestment in older neighborhoods and sprawl at the perimeter. 

Map 1 examines the spatial distribution of the changes in the counts of households in census tracts from 2000 to 2013.  It is readily apparent that the overbuilding is not evenly spread across Lawrence. Rather, the overbuilding is most intense in the western parts of the city and in the Prairie Park area in the southeast.  This has not left the other neighborhoods unharmed.  The older neighborhoods in the central part of the city have lost population as the surplus stock built at the perimeter draws the population away from older neighborhoods causing them to lose population and investment.


Map 1:  Gain or Loss in Households in Census Tracts 2000 to 2013

















Planning in a community like Lawrence should seek to protect and even enhance the condition of older neighborhoods.  Continuation of the overbuilding will only continue to exacerbate the population losses and value losses in the older neighborhoods.  Thus, the concern for the older neighborhoods is not to increase density in lieu of sprawl at the perimeter of the city.  Rather, the concern is to manage the growth of the community so as to replenish the population losses in the older neighborhoods.  If some share of the growth can be attracted back to the older neighborhoods it can help to restore those neighborhoods and stimulate reinvestment in them.


Appropriate Planning Response

Growth management has the potential to bring balance to the development process by keeping the growth of supply in balance with the growth in demand.

It is recommended that Lawrence and Douglas County adopt growth management in its comprehensive plan.  The concept is straightforward; if the community is growing by 250 households per year, the planning process should not permit more than 250 additional units to be added to the supply. 

To rectify the harm that has been done to older neighborhoods, the planning process should strive to keep the growth in supply below the growth in demand for a period of time so as to direct some portion of the growth back into the older neighborhoods restoring the population, investment and value previously lost.

Growth management offers a new, more beneficial form of competition to the development process.  Under the current approach, developers compete with each other for a limited demand, harming older neighborhoods in the process.  Under growth management, developers compete with each other for selection as one of the designated developers for the limited amount of development that will be permitted given the growth in demand.  As the developers compete for this designation, they tend to enhance their projects through the provision of community services and other amenities in order to be selected.  This permits the community to gain from these enhancements and to better direct growth in supply where it is needed, more effectively than can be done through zoning alone.