Friday, September 2, 2011

Density by itself is neither the problem nor the solution

Urbanists often present density as the solution to auto-dependent suburbs. Adding more people per square mile, they say, will bring about the critical mass necessary to support good public transit and vibrant downtowns, while simultaneously preserving open space. I argue that it is not density that we should be trying to sell, for two reasons: for one, it scares a lot of people. Secondly, it will not solve the problem that urbanists are trying to solve, namely auto-dependent sprawl.

Convincing Americans (outside of New York, San Francisco and a handful of other places) of the virtues of density is going to be a tough sell. For many, density is just another word for “overcrowded.” Countering with evidence that some of the most desirable city neighborhoods in the world are also among the densest is not all that persuasive. It is assumed that the rich will make themselves comfortable no matter where they are. Furthermore, such places strike many ordinary people as completely impractical for their needs, which may include raising and educating multiple children.

We need a better term for what it is that we are advocating. There are all sorts of long-winded ways of describing it: we want walkable, mixed-use, transit-served neighborhoods that accommodate a variety of ages and incomes. I propose that we borrow from the “Complete Streets” movement and promote the development of “Complete Neighborhoods.” A complete neighborhood - not simply a dense one - is the counterpart to sprawl. A neighborhood should be considered complete when it can accommodate multiple modes of transportation (including walking), house people at different incomes and stages of life, and be able to serve most of the daily needs of its inhabitants within the ideal walkable radius of ¼ - ½ mile. It is possible to have density without having these other components - just look at a low-income urban housing project or a middle-income suburban garden apartment complex for examples of localized density without the lively cafes, nearby grocery stores, or any of the other benefits that are supposed go hand-in-hand with density.

I am not arguing against density. In fact, it is inevitable that these complete neighborhoods will be denser than what many suburbanites and exurbanites are accustomed to. It is impossible to achieve the mix of uses, walkability and critical mass for public transit at exurban lot sizes, nor does it provide options across income and age levels. Thus a complete neighborhood will have a range of housing types, and because of its compactness, it will be moderately dense, anywhere from 6,000/square mile (example: Montclair, NJ) to 40,000/square mile (example: Hoboken, NJ). However, I think people may not even think of the density when they see places like this; certainly, it will not come across as something that will diminish the quality of life to which they are accustomed. For example, a neighborhood of single-family homes can be made more compact simply by shrinking the front lawn. Options for different income levels can be provided by allowing the construction of so-called accessory dwellings. A complete neighborhood would probably have townhouses and apartment buildings at its densest part. These changes would allow for a neighborhood to offer an array of housing types, use less land, and increase walkability.

Montclair, NJ (photo credit: Flickr user shutterbugMike)Hoboken, NJ (photo credit: Flickr user wallyg)

Rather than chiding Americans that they ought to live densely and walk more, we should demonstrate the virtues of a complete neighborhood. By that I mean the virtues of meeting people’s everyday needs better, not the virtues of lower carbon footprints and more sustainable land use. These are admirable things, but only selling points to a relatively small (and affluent) segment of the population. For the average person or family looking for a place to live, the challenge is going to be explaining that the tradeoff (in private space) to live in such places may actually make them happier. This is something that people have trouble imagining, and is what we need to address if we going to sell “complete neighborhoods” to people who previously would not have considered them.

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