Density Redux


The entire conversation about density that I started here on Monday (which actually grew out of another fascinating conversation going on over at the Strong Towns Network) has taken on a life of its own, going off into regions I did not think people would take it. It is fascinating to me, especially because we have so many intelligent people participating in this conversation and, to be quite frank, I'm not sure if we agree or disagree with each other.

I want to explore this entire thing over time, but before we can start that, I want to back up and simplify my central thesis from Monday. I think I can simplify it down to three points, which I would list in order of importance as:

  1. Productive land use patterns will often result in increased density, but an increase in density does not automatically mean a productive land use pattern.

  2. Within the constraint of modern zoning, the planning profession's (and apparently many other's) obsession with density often has bizarre and unhealthy consequences. Because of the limitations of modern zoning codes, emphasizing density over other design factors leads to undesirable consequences. (Suggested change by Foraker on the Strong Towns Network)

  3. Our regulation of density presupposes a level of knowledge and foresight that we don't posses.

Of these three, the first two seem fairly self evident while I can understand why the third, for many, is a greater leap. I'll focus on these first two today and we'll swing back around to the third at some point in the future before we hit some of the "related" issues of transit, form based codes, finance, public health, environmental issues, climate change and others that have been brought into the conversation. I put "related" in quotation marks because many of you seem to think that density is THE answer to all of our problems. Wish it were that easy, but it just isn't so.

Premise: Productive land use patterns will often result in increased density, but an increase in density does not automatically mean a productive land use pattern.

To make my point on this, on Monday I brought up urban renewal as an example. The idea that we would tear down functioning neighborhoods and replace them with high density towers in a park like setting is one scheme of the planning profession that achieved density but spectacularly failed on all other accounts.

The Agenda 21 paranoia being spread lately by the likes of Glen Beck intimates that we are going to be rounded up into high density work camps. While it is disheartening that this buffoonery is taken as anything more than a very poor knock off of Cormac McCarthy fiction, it feeds on our basic understanding that a work camp may achieve density, but there is no productivity.

Let's examine something a little more relevant to America circa 2013. Two years ago I wrote a piece called On Beyond Infill (I also included it in my book for those of you that have it) that included this photo. While there are certainly some in the planning profession that would look at this as progress, I have to believe it is a minority opinion. Certainly, outside of the density worshiping crowd, this is seen for the failure that it is. On the site in the background we've achieved density -- yes -- but it is hard to see how this neighborhood will prosper in the coming decades, or even endure for that matter.

These have all been instances where high density has not resulted in productivity, but how about the opposite? There are clearly areas of low density that are highly productive. I am fond of telling the story of how the farm I grew up on used to be served by a very modest road, Click for licensing and attribution.essentially a couple of tire tracks through the woods. When two cars would meet going in opposite directions (a rare occurrence), one of the drivers would need to back up to a driveway to let the other pass. While these farms produced relatively modest amount of tax revenue or commercial activity, they didn't demand hardly any public services. In other words, this was a very productive environment due largely to the lack of density.

So clearly it is not true that there is a simple relationship -- even in an urban setting -- between density and productivity. There is clearly more to building human habitat that will prosper than density.

Premise: Within the constraint of modern zoning, the planning profession's (and apparently many others) obsession with density often has bizarre and unhealthy consequences.

When we focus on just density, we miss so many of the fine grained things that make a place successful. One of the reasons I was drawn to the Congress for the New Urbanism is that this acknowledgement is a core belief. In fact, my comings and goings among the New Urbanist crowd may have dulled me to the recognition that this is not self evident.

I'm going to quote Shane Phillips of Seattle, Washington, who made a very insightful comment on the Strong Towns Network discussion board:

When you say "density bonus" I believe you mean when planners allow buildings with a bit more mass or height in exchange for some "public good," whether that be a park, affordable housing, money for the metro system, whatever. I interpret this as a system in which planners are treating density as a bad thing, and they're only willing to grant more of it if the developer is willing to pony up some goodies. The alternative, which is certainly possible, is that the planners don't dislike density, but are willing to withhold it in return for things they value more, like the above examples.

With modern zoning, density is the currency of the local bureaucracy. We trade in density as a way to leverage other aims. Those aims may be in the public's interest -- I'd like to think that is the way most try to operare -- and sometimes we may confuse the public's interest with the goals of the staff (ie. more parking or additional revenue for STROADS).

I love San Diego and I think it has to be one of the greatest cities in our country, but I'm perplexed by the random towers that show up across the landscape there. I'm told that the land is so valuable that only huge towers are profitable, but that makes no sense. The land is so valuable because a developer -- if they have deep enough pockets to bargain for all the density -- can build a tower. If they couldn't build a tower but could only incrementally add on to their property, the underlying land value would be much different. That this distorts all property values, harming the average citizens in the process, is just one unsavory side effect.

(I realize that may be a leap for some, so let me divert with a little more detail. The property values are established in the "market" where the deep pocketed bidders can drive up the price and recoup their costs through higher density. This makes all property values go up because, theoretically, they could also have such returns. If we step back and look at the situation, every property in San Diego is not going to have a tower on it. The demand is not that high. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of properties will develop in this way. So what is being done in San Diego -- and many, many other cities across the U.S. -- is that we are choosing a pattern of growth that advantages the few, wealthy developers while disadvantaging the small, incremental developers. That this approach gives a windfall to a few while regressively distributing the tax burden to those that will not develop towers is simply a feature that adds insult to injury.)

I realize that we long ago got rid of zoning approaches that were overtly discriminatory, but that does not mean our zoning practices are not socially harmful. For those of you that don't know the history, it may or may not shock you that zoning was originally used largely for racial segregation. Even here in Minnesota, our major cities had districts where minorities were specifically excluded by zoning.

Today we don't segregate by race but by class. Someone show me one of these high density developments that has a true mix of price points. Where is the apartment or condo that has lower income units side by side with exclusive, multi-million dollar units? High density is often synonymous with "poor". Where it is not, it is synonymous with "exclusive". Either way, we're not learning any lessons from our experiments with housing projects and gated communities.

When we look at the amenities that are negotiated for when trafficking in density bonuses, they are rarely altruistic. Additional parking spaces. Some green space that is generally exclusive to the development. Or my favorite: native plantings.

And finally, inherent in this notion of density through the framework of modern zoning is the understanding that it has to go somewhere. You may not want it in your back yard, but we understand (wink, wink) that we need apartments, towers and condos somewhere. Somewhere that will house those people or provide us with a sugar rush of increased tax revenue. Just as long as I don't have it in my back yard, I won't show up at the meeting and protest. It is a necessary evil, just make it somebody else's.

I'm not a social scientist, but my heart tells me that there could be few widely held sentiments so destructive to society. This reminds me of Ian Rasmussen's party analogy, the concept that development used to be something that we embraced because that incremental growth made our places better. We now abhor it because it is so nasty and destructive. A community of NIMBY's is a broken community, yet it is hard to say that the NIMBY mentality is not a rational one in America today.

Okay, all ye out there that are the iron that sharpens my blade, I welcome your comments but am going to make two requests. First, let's narrow this conversation for now to a debate of these two premises. If there is something else, give us an OT alert and I'll try and pick it up later. I really want to drill down into these two insights and shore them up. Second, if you would be so kind, I'd love to take the bulk of this discussion over to the Network site. The interface is so much better, the conversation richer and more personal and the ability to add links, photos and other info just makes it all a superior experience.

Here are the links to the Strong Towns Network conversations on these two: