A friend recently asked me, “Do you really have faith in density?” It's a reasonable question, and a timely one: We urbanists believe our region's future lies in developing greater density. And my persistent support of the idea has earned me some charming sobriquets on local comments pages.
This simple notion — that our world, region, and city would be better off if more people lived in a smaller space — is an essential part of the urbanist agenda. I believe it trumps most other good ideas for making society more sustainable. And next week the Seattle City Council will consider upzones for Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood that will surely rouse arguments for and against density around new light rail stations.
It’s true that there are downsides to density. As Economist correspondent Ryan Avent notes in his new book The Gated City, excerpted in The New York Times, “Urban growth would mean denser neighborhoods, which makes many Americans uncomfortable." And density's critics, who often express their objections in comments on this site, raise questions that should be answered: Where’s the evidence supporting density? What if nobody wants to live amidst it? And isn’t promoting city living a kind of social engineering? Aren't those of us who wish to direct growth into the urban core imposing our effete, childless, wireless-laptop-in-the-coffeeshop lifestyle on the rest of humanity? Is density another word for "gentrification"?
Let's take that social-engineering charge first. Yes, we are social engineers, but no more so than Robert Moses and his followers, who built “free” highways and subsidized, auto-dependent single-family communities that ate up land, fuel, and energy for more than half a century. That kind of social engineering has run out of (cheap) gas. The answer is to engineer more wisely, not to return to the Wild West or mimick South American shanty towns.
Where's the proof that density works? The most obvious evidence can be found not in a journal article but on your commute to work. If you carpool, walk, or take a bus, you’re using less fuel and reducing your carbon emissions and your impact on air quality. All three modes are easier to use when lots of people live closer to each other, to transit, and to their workplaces. More people living and working in one place means concentrated demand for transit, restaurants, bars, and all the other things that make neighborhoods thrive.
If common sense and on-the-ground experience aren't good enough, there's also ample hard scientific evidence, readily accessible on Sightline.org, of density's benefits for climate, energy savings, transit, stormwater control, and local government finances. On the economic front, as Avent notes, suppressing density "denies workers access to the best opportunities, constraining the mechanism that helps support a strong middle class.”
“Okay,” I hear the critics say, “but who wants to live like that, shoulder to shoulder, in anthill apartments or crackerbox condos? Isn’t that why we live in America, to avoid the oppression and inconvenience of city living?" Tell that to the people who are choosing to rent in Seattle. A study by the real estate site Trulia found that Seattle is one of the best places in the country to rent and one of the worst places to buy. While people can’t or don’t want to buy a single family home here they still want to live here. So they’re moving into those anthills in and driving a boom in rental housing. People want to live in cities and they are willing to pay for the opportunities urban living provides.
A corollary argument, favored by frequent Crosscut writer Dick Nelson, is that we don’t need to increase development capacity by upzoning because we already have enough land zoned for density. This is an anecdotal argument in quantitative clothing. It suggests that Ballard, for example, has room for hundreds more multifamily units, but developers won’t build them because no one wants them. This presumes that zoning and units are simply different denominations of the same currency, density. But the currency of density isn’t fungible. The fact that there are scattered parcels throughout Ballard which, added together, would produce a bunch of units of housing does not density make. Density requires concentration — pushing housing into urban villages and transit-station areas in order to provide convenient amenities and stimulate demand.
Prices reveal how we wish things to be. To sustain the single-family lifestyle, we made prices lie, pretending that living in the suburbs and driving to work each day was convenient, cheap, and liberating, and imagining that our hard work and saving entitled us to it. That lie has grown threadbare. Change isn’t easy, but we ought to be planning for it now rather than trying to deny what coming generations will embrace as a way of life. Seattle can lead the way into the future, finding new ways to shape our neighborhoods that reflect our values, hopes, and vision, not just our fears.
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