The notion that we can solve the problems that we face in our cities by simply increasing the density requirement in our zoning codes is not just naive, it is dead wrong. Density is an expected byproduct of a successful place, not the implement by which we create one. While it would be great if it were that easy, building a Strong Towns is a complex undertaking, one that defies a professional silo or a simple solution.
During the Q&A portion of a Curbside Chat I field a lot of the same questions from place to place. One of the most frequent goes something like this:
So what you're talking about here is density, right? We need more density?
Oh, if it were only that easy.
Density is a metric. As applied to the urban planning realm, it is either the number of units or the number of people in a given area. As a metric, it is fairly one dimensional. That makes it fairly dumb.
How do you want your density? Photos of Fort Myers, FL, by Russ Preston.
I'm generally asked the density question by one of two types of people. The first are the conspiracy prone, those that believe that density targets are mandated by the UN and that, once we get the high speed rail lines built, people will be rounded up into high density encampments in the name of sustainable development. I actually have sympathy for people with this belief (so long as they are not mean) because it must be awful to live with such unfounded paranoia. When I suspect this is where the question is coming from, I point out that I never mentioned density (or sustainable for that matter), am not advocating for more density and don't think that density is an answer to any of the questions I've raised.
The other type are the planners zoners and their surrogates. It is they that I am going to spend some time on here today.
For the modern day planner zoner and many of those they work with on planning zoning boards, there is a base assumption that the enormous complexity of the built environment can be simplified down to a handful of variables. Setback, parking, FAR and density, just to name a few. By tinkering with the dials a little, the planner zoner can fine tune things to achieve an optimal outcome. Where they fall short, it is generally the cause of a bad developer, poor political leadership or unexpected market conditions.
Note that the approach -- both in terms of what insiders believe they can do and what they have historically failed to accomplish -- is mirrored in the economic realm. The idea that our enormously complex economy can be simplified down to a handful of variables and that, in any given crisis, one need only increase or decrease the liquidity of the money supply to create some linear response is widespread. That intelligent people can do foolish things when blinded by their own hubris is not just possible, it is to be expected.
I'm not sure why planners zoners are generally so keen on density, but they are, to the point where it often comes across as an obsession. I have a theory. I think a lot of planners zoners yearn to be spatial planners. They go to school to build great places. They get out into the real world and are given this ridiculously blunt instrument -- zoning -- and are frustrated that they can't wield it to create Paris. Few stop to ask what zoning regulations were used to create Paris (hint: there weren't any). Density, especially when given as a bonus for attainment of certain performance objectives, is the closest thing a modern planner zoner gets to their professional roots. We all suffer the consequences.
What planners zoners don't grasp is the difference between correlation and causation. When I say that everyone in human history that has died has, at one point in their life, drank water, that is a correlation. It does not mean that drinking water causes death yet, we can look and there is a clear correlation. While that is an absurd example, it reveals a larger point.
A strong town -- a productive place -- is generally of a higher density than an unproductive place. That financial productivity, however, is not caused by the density. There is a correlation — as productivity goes up, so does density — but one does not cause the other.
Need I point out the obvious and bring up Urban Renewal? This is a sin for which the planning zoning profession has never fully come to grips with in much the same way that today's communists have not come to grips with the Soviet Union. It just wasn't done right is the whisper among friends, never that the fragility of the concept itself should be questioned. If modern Germans are expected to remain vigilant against even the hint of ultra right Fascist thought in their society, modern planners zoners should be forced to annually visit their nearest housing project to lay a wreath or plant a tree and absorb the public shame that should be theirs.
I think there are a couple of other insideous reasons why planners zoners have a fetish with density. The first is that it fits with Euclidean precepts, which are themselves amazingly discriminatory. A high density tower separates people vertically by class the same way that standard zoning separates them horizontally. I've never heard of a tower with some $75,000 units next to some $5,000,000 units. Zoning allows planners zoners to hyper separate everyone into pods defined by price point. Higher density just increases the palette of options.
The other insidious reason is that it is ultimately acceptable. This may seem crazy to most planners zoners because density is almost universally opposed by the public, but that opposition is to density in my neighborhood. If you're telling me my city will grow by 1,000 residents and I can either have some apartments or townhouses in my neighborhood or a tower in some other neighborhood, I'll gladly inconvenience someone else. It is easier for planners zoners to fight one big battle in one neighborhood than to have many smaller skirmishes across the entire community.
Only in the America of the Suburban Experiment do we culturally expect that, once a home is built, the neighborhood around it should remain ever static. The traditional development pattern and the success of prior human settlements were based on the notion that neighborhoods, particularly those near the core the community, would continue to gain value and mature over time. We'd have much less anxiety over density today if it meant a single family home being converted into a similar-looking duplex as opposed to a project to remove two homes for an apartment complex.
Ultimately, the notion that we can solve the problems that we face in our cities by simply increasing the density requirement in our zoning codes is not just naive, it is dead wrong. Density is an expected byproduct of a successful place, not the implement by which we create one. Building a Strong Towns is a complex undertaking, one that defies a professional silo or a simple solution.
It would be much easier it that weren't true, but unfortunately we've already exhausted easy.
Charles Marohn is a Professional Engineer licensed in the State of Minnesota and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is author of Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1), and is president of Strong Towns, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for changes in development patterns and a complete understanding of the full costs of methods of growth.
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