|Examples of city street patterns from around the world. Source: aliaalbazei.blogspot.com
(Note: I originally posted this in November 2013 as a response to the nearly reflexive call for greater density in our cities by urbanists. I love dense communities and consider them to be the crowning achievement of the human endeavor of city building. But there is much more that goes into them. Please take a look at this and the postscript that follows. -Pete)
Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you, a native of, say Omaha, Nebraska or some other similarly positioned Great Plains location, take a trip to the tropical forests of Central or South America. The trip becomes the defining moment of your life. You are astounded by the natural beauty of the flora and fauna. The colorful feathers of parrots or other tropical birds amaze you, and the rich diversity of the trees, flowers, even fungi, simply astonish you. The constant chatter of animals large and small feels like a symphony to your ears. You determine that there is no place as richly beautiful as this anywhere on Earth. You also come to believe that the thickness of the tropical forest’s flora and fauna are the secret to its success.
Now you believe that the biodiversity of the tropical forest is the answer for such boring, flat and relatively homogenous biome of the Great Plains. You want to import the trees and flowers, the birds and reptiles, everything you saw in the tropical forest to bring that same richness to Omaha. Of course, you find that nothing that is designed to live in the Amazonian or Costa Rican rain forests is designed to live in Omaha, and everything you bring dies a quick death. Just as bad, there are a number of Omahans who despise your efforts to change the culture they’ve long been accustomed to, and are quite happy to see everything wither away.
In a sense, this is how I see the urbanist infatuation with density. Those who love cities fall in love with the densest of them, and argue that it’s their density that enables the complex interactions that are the foundation for their economic growth.
The Kama Sutra of density reads this way: creative people cluster in cities that are good at lifestyle manufacturing. The more people that are sardined the higher likelihood there will be “serendipitous” encounters. The more serendipity in a city the better chance the next “big thing” will occur. The next “big thing” will lead to a good start-up, which will lead to an agglomeration of start-ups, termed an “Innovation District”. Detroit becomes Detroit 2.0 then.
The story of density is a seductive story. Society-making is sobering and full of harsh realities. The story of density is seamless, velvety. It is no wonder the story gets sold, implemented, and then told and re-told, despite the validity and logic of the story being pretty awful.
Don’t get me wrong – I love density. I love the dynamism of cities, the joyful and serendipitous nature of the city. To me, one of the simple pleasures of living in a city is the ability to leave your home or office in search of a good lunch or dinner, having no clue where you are going, and still finding an excellent meal in a place you’ve never heard of.
But urbanists pushing for density have gotten the formula wrong. Density is an outcome, not a goal. A goal worth pursuing, yes, but it should be a marker of your city’s success, not an element of its strategy. Density does not produce serendipity; serendipity produces density.
Looking back at my simple pleasure, that experience is not available in many places. If you choose to leave your house, in your car, in search of a good meal without having an idea where you’re going, you might drive quite a while and possibly cause an accident once you stumble upon the place you want to go to. It’s not easy. But my feeling is that density is a process. Small cities or suburbs should not be trying to replicate the building scale of a New York City or Boston, or Chicago or San Francisco. They should, however, be doing what they can to increase the complexity of their community, the texture and richness of their community. They should be doing what they can to improve the physical diversity of their community, so they don’t become as socially homogenous as the biological homogeneity of the Great Plains’ “amber waves of grain”.
I think Richey touches on the notion of texture, complexity and diversity versus density in this passage:
Take the recent New York Times piece entitled “What It Takes to Create a Start-up Community”. In it, the writer interviews urbanist Richard Florida. “Population density, [Florida] said, allows for the serendipitous encounters that inspire creativity, innovation and collaboration,” reads one key passage in the piece.
The story goes on to highlight the emerging tech hub of Boulder as the exemplar of the story of density. One problem: Boulder, a city of less than 100,000, isn’t dense, with a population per square mile of 3,948. The writer moves the goal posts a bit and says the city “is an unusual case of density”, before going on to question whether a start-up community can be created in a city like Detroit that “lacks density”. Yet Detroit, despite being a land mass comprised of one-third vacant land, is denser than Boulder, at 5,144 people per square mile. In all, Aristotle would have a field day with the piece.
I’d argue that tech hub Boulder has elements of texture, complexity and diversity – physical, not necessarily socially or demographically – that have allowed it to become the emerging tech hub that it is. On the other hand, Detroit, while more dense than Boulder, is losing a lot of the texture that can be a foundation for future growth, and its current density is more a legacy than a defining feature.
Texture, complexity and diversity.
That’s the key.
That’s what will become critical in the development of our cities going forward.
Not density for density’s sake, with the hope that it spurs innovation and creativity. Cost will always be a factor in where people will look to move, but increasingly people will want to find places that offer texture, complexity and diversity.
Today, the places that offer that combination are primarily our most dense places, but if cities focus on building that, they will find that density will come.
In the year-plus since I wrote this I’ve learned some things that add more to my position. Without a doubt I come to most every opinion on cities I have from a very Rust Belt perspective, and I credit geographer Jim Russell and demographics researcher Richey Piiparinen, two gentlemen who’ve done tons of work in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, respectively, for broadening my outlook on density. Here’s what I’ve come to believe:
Density is a legacy of geographic, historical and cultural factors. I think in America we underestimate the impact these factors had on the development of our oldest and densest cities. New York, Boston and San Francisco, for example, have urban densities that are entirely shaped by the geographies of their areas of initial settlement — the narrow island that is Manhattan, and the isthmus that both Boston and San Francisco settled. Furthermore, their initial development occurred during pre-automobile years; if people wanted to take advantage of the economic advantages of those cities, they needed to be as close as possible to where the advantages lie. These factors shaped these cities.
Cities that developed in areas with more available land, or after the advent and spread of the automobile, simply did not have the geographic, historic or cultural reasons to develop to the same extent as those that developed earlier. Many more recently developed cities certainly have areas of similar density and texture, but holding them to that standard to their fullest extent, as our lives have changed, is folly.
Migration trumps density. As I say above, density is an outcome, not a goal. Density is the result of strong locational demand in a given city. That demand is driven by the people who want to move into your community. My Rust Belt experience tells me that strong, dense, textured communities are much more dependent on migration due to a strong economy than on building for building’s sake. Generally, if migration continues, density will follow.