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City Density Arguments: Wicked Problems

Posted in Movements, Opinion by Kate Archdeacon on May 25th, 2011

Image: Beraldo Leal via flickr CC

“… a lot of what makes cities great is not just their efficiency, but the inefficiencies that also make them attractive and livable.”

The densification of cities and the ways to do so is an ongoing topic of interest here at Sustainable Cities Net.  This article, “The man who thinks Manhattan isn’t dense enough” by Kaid Benfield via Sustainable Cities Collective caught our attention because it shows the complexity of the issue, even among “experts”.

Here are some extracts from the article:

New York County, which comprises all of Manhattan, is the densest county in America, at 71,166 people per square mile. It is twice as dense as number-two Brooklyn (which, incidentally, is followed by two more New York City counties, Bronx and Queens, at numbers three and four, respectively). Manhattan is over four times as dense as number-five San Francisco.

This makes me wonder about Ed Glaeser, a libertarian economist who is the latest hero of some of my new urbanist friends, who have been promoting the heck out of his upcoming speech at their annual meeting. Glaeser thinks Manhattan could be so much better if, you know, we just got rid of some of those pesky rules that get in the way of building still more density. I’m not exaggerating, and I’ll give some examples in a minute.

[…] Glaeser’s current book is called The Triumph of the City. It has received a lot of attention and praise, not least because its author is an intellectual who does his homework and packs a lot of detail into his writing.

[…] He previewed the book in The Atlantic, in an article called “How Skyscrapers Can Save the City.” Here’s Glaeser’s pro-density argument in a nutshell: “The magic of cities comes from their people, but those people must be well served by the bricks and mortar that surround them. Cities need roads and buildings that enable people to live well and to connect easily with one another . . . in the most desirable cities, whether they’re on the Hudson River or the Arabian Sea, height is the best way to keep prices affordable and living standards high.”

It’s basically about efficient use of land, and I agree with much of it, though personally I think there is a lot of room for more density in most American cities and suburbs without making it all about skyscrapers. I also agree, to an extent, with other points Glaeser makes in that article and in the book about overzealous NIMBYs and over-prescriptive zoning.  But here’s the rub: a lot of what makes cities great is not just their efficiency, but the inefficiencies that also make them attractive and livable.

[…] Before leaving the topic, I want to return to a point I made earlier, because it’s important: Glaeser is right in his central points about cities and density. They are good for both the environment and the economy, so part of me is glad that his views are getting attention. My issue is with the lack of nuance and the failure to give enough credit to the benefits of preservation and environmental protection, both of which enrich our well-being and that of cities.

Read the full article by Kaid Benfield on Sustainable Cities Collective.

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