Are density and character compatible?

Urban density is a term used in urban planning and urban design to refer to the number of people inhabiting a given urbanized area (from Wikipedia). Density is relative: High density in Flagstaff is not the same as high density in Manhattan, Phoenix or Tempe. 

When the Flagstaff zoning code was rewritten to include transect, or form-based zoning, it was with the understanding that higher densities would be needed in order to sustain the growth that is coming: The only way to fit a growing population into an existing space to for people to live closer together, in smaller spaces, or both.

But equal in value to growing sustainably—or even higher value—was the concern that Flagstaff’s character would be maintained. This is an issue that form-based code was designed to address. A key principle of form-based code is that it enhance existing valued patterns of a place. 

According to Flagstaff’s form-based, or transect zoning, that means infilling existing urban neighborhoods with building forms that are similar in scale to existing buildings: New buildings might be slightly bigger or taller than the existing ones, but not so much that the existing character or land use of the place would change.

Urban transect zones range in intensity: the more intense, downtown neighborhoods (like T6 Downtown) have larger, taller and therefore more dense buildings than the less intense neighborhoods (like smaller T5 Main Street or even smaller T4 Neighborhood).

In order to accomplish this in Flagstaff, transect zoning regulates a particular action order: 1) the zone is identified; 2) the building types for that zone are identified and chosen, and; 3) the new or revitalized building is designed to comply with both the existing neighborhood and the building type. The numerics provided for a given zone are in provided to restrict details like height and setbacks only after the first 3 steps are taken, not in place of them.

If these regulations are properly interpreted and applied, the result is to add density to what exists rather than replace low density with high density.