(This is a follow-up post responding to Joel Kotkin’s article on urban density. You can read the first post here.)
At the core of what makes a city a city is relative density. Imagine if we took the world’s population and evenly spaced each person out on their plot of land. What would we end up with? We would have a lack of farm land. No centralized places of trade or commerce. People would be living in flood plains and rocky crags. We would be left with an uninteresting society. And, there wouldn’t be cities. This is why people have chosen proximity and built cities. Even the psalmist in the Bible said that Jerusalem was built as a city ought to be built, closely compact (Psalm 122:3).
As a clarification, density is not the same thing as overcrowding. Preferring urban density isn’t a matter of trying squash as much humanity per square foot as inhumanly possible. Joel Kotkin’s article refers to places where overcrowding is undermining the human experience (here is an intense photo collection of Hong Kong’s overcrowding). Urban density is for the sake of the common good, but when it becomes overcrowding it detracts from the common good. Also, urban density doesn’t mean that everyone is cooped up in 30-story high-rises. Brooklyn, London, Paris, and Istanbul manage high density without skyscrapers in every direction.
Density is Good for the City’s Economy
If I am opening a new shop, I want to put it in a place there are a lot of people. Jane Jacobs tells us cities have always been centers of trade and commerce. Commerce only works when there is enough density to make it work. The market is an urban phenomenon and thrives when there is enough critical mass for ongoing profit. Without urban density, we would still be doing our shopping when a trade caravan travels past our dwelling. Moreover, density allows us the opportunity for variation in our economic offerings. Niche markets have a better chance of thriving in relatively dense cities.
Density is Ecologically Friendly
I live in a medium-high density neighborhood. We have no houses here. Our whole neighborhood is composed of apartments, townhouses, offices, and shops. This is ecological advantage in three ways: reduced infrastructure, walkability, and public transportation. First, if we took the 60,000 people who live here and put everyone in stand-alone houses, we would need more construction materials, roads, pipes, electrical lines, and more. All of this chews up more of the earth’s resources and occupies more land that could be used for agriculture. Second, because our neighborhood is dense, I can walk anywhere in the community. I can walk to a restaurant, grocery store, or to friend’s apartment who lives on the other side of the neighborhood. This helps reduce carbon emissions and gas. Third, public transportation is much more efficient and usable when neighborhoods are built with density in mind. We live an easy 15 minute walk from the light rail train station and 2 minutes from a bus stop. Many American cities struggle to implement public transportation precisely because of a lack of urban density. For middle-class car owners, this is no big deal, but for the urban poor this is a huge issue. Matt Hern illustrates the ecological advantage of densely built cities: “New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank 51st in per-capita energy use.” By living in close proximity we are being good stewards of the resources with which we have been blessed.
Density Can Provide Security
Since the beginning of history people have come to cities to escape threat of bandits and marauders. High city walls in the old days and police and security forces today are all urban characteristics. More densely settled populations can pool their resources to set up informal and formal security systems. It is the collective density of cities that generated the resources for other security measures. Crime is reduced in neighborhoods where there is more social integration. Neighborhoods are more socially integrated when there is enough density for walkability and shared public spaces. This is not to say that urban density automatically fosters a secure environment, but it is a key ingredient.
Density Fosters Vibrancy and Innovation
Jeb Bruggman in Welcome to the Urban Revolution says that density is one our most important urban advantages. When we live close to each other we are more likely to interact socially and share common concerns related to the neighborhood. This proximity becomes a catalyst for urban vibrancy. Urban vibrancy stems from human activity. The sidewalks are busy with activity, and the public spaces are being used in diverse ways. This happens when the citizens demonstrate involvement in the city and the everyday matters of the city. The best cities in the world—the ones people love to visit—have a vibrancy to them.
By living in close proximity to a lot of other people we have opportunities to rub shoulders with a variety of people with all kinds of ideas. Fashion, music, and technology have all flourished because of urban density. Kotkin said that Silicon Valley is more sprawled and suburban than dense and urban. Many of the big companies have built headquarters there. But many of the initial great ideas were sparked in crowded coffee shops in the SoMa district of San Francisco. The easy and free exchange of ideas spawns innovation and creativity.
I believe the weight of evidence is on the side of urban density, and a recent UN report agrees with me. It is good for individuals, communities, cities, and even the earth. But this is not to say that we should just turn over large tracks of land to corporate developers to make dense cities. The best kind of urban density is developed over time and organically. City leaders and citizens will do well to consider policies that foster urban density without forcing density. Let’s build dense cities that benefit the common good.