The Burden of Density Advocates

(disclaimer: If you have a rant filter, now would be a good time to activate it.)

In discussions of urban density, the point is almost invariably made that advocates have an obligation to prove to the masses that density can be livable, and that if they don’t do this then they can’t blame the public for resisting. Pardon my French, but I call bullshit. If you want to talk obligations, try this: Each one of us has the obligation to educate ourselves about how our lifestyle is killing the planet, and to learn how we can change the way we live in order to put a stop to the devastation.

Of course, many people are already doing just that, and the consensus is that reconfiguring our cities for higher density is one of the most effective strategies possible for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (as well as a host of other environmental, social, and economic liabilities). And if you accept that, then you must also accept that we simply do not have the option to say no to density. It is a self-destructive fantasy to believe that we can take or leave density depending on whether or not it meets our particular list of preconditions. Because life in imperfect density is far better than life in a world of collapsed ecosystems and no food to eat.

I don’t mean to pick on anyone, but take the example of this comment, in which the author said that he would rather have no towers at all if they were as unattractive as Beacon Tower. Choices like this, multiplied many times over across thousands of neighborhoods and cities, will have significant consequences. And so the choice that is actually being made might well be between living with ugly towers or living with extinct coral reefs. In this context, the impact of towers on views from a mile or two away ranks pretty low on the priority list, especially since it is also subjective.

But alas, I too am guilty of this brand of shortsighted criticism. In this post I apparently felt the need to whine about how the architecture of several new multifamily buildings in Seattle wasn’t up to my standards of good design. And that was petty and dumb, because even though they may not have stunning facades, those buildings succeed beautifully in doing what’s most important: increasing density.

And so back to my original point concerning obligation: Just because density advocates are communicating the reality of what should be done doesn’t mean they must bear the burden of making everyone feel all warm and fuzzy about it. The key is to help everyone fully understand, first, the awesome threat of global warming, and second, the importance of density in mitigating that threat. Once it is widely acknowledged that increasing density is what we must do, and that we must do it as quickly as possible, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to make sure we do it well.

All that said, to make progress in the real world it is no doubt important to help people get past their negative biases about urban density and to provide attractive examples. And of course, many density advocates are already doing just that. But we would also do well to end the propagation of this idea that density is just a fashion choice that needs to be marketed like a luxury appliance.  If we hope to successfully deal with the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, then we’ll have to expect a lot more from people than is implied when we assume we have to sugar coat neccessary solutions to make them palatable.   

17 Responses to “The Burden of Density Advocates”

  1. Dan Staley

    We don’t have a density problem, we have a design problem.

    So, say we get some grain disease and all our corn and wheat may go away if we are unsuccessful at doing something to stop it.

    Some lab comes up with a replacement and states that we have to eat this stuff. See, everyone must fully understand that corn and wheat may go away so you have to eat this stuff. Now, hear this: our corn and wheat may go away so you have to eat this stuff. Sure, it looks like cardboard and styrofoam, but everyone has to fully understand the awesome threat of corn going away (no sweetener in your Coke, young man!). So, you there: fully understand the awesome threat and eat this styrofoam-looking cr*p. Why should the company developing the styrofoam-looking cr*p bear the burden of making everyone feel all warm and fuzzy about eating it? It becomes everyone’s responsibility to make sure we choke it down so we can sit around the dinner table and repeat what Rush blathered about today. So, you there, rugged individual marching in lockstep: fully understand the awesome threat and eat this styrofoam-looking cr*p.

    See what’s missing? There’s an implicit need to reassure the dinner table that the styrofoam-looking cr*p isn’t necessarily going to taste bad.

    Same thing with the human psychology of contemplating moving. There’s an implicit need to reassure the homeowner that they won’t necesarily be living in a cardboard-looking cr*ppy box with the fat neighbor with three loud brats two feet away.

    You can’t force something on people. You have to make them want it. Ask Madison Ave about this.

    Honey and vinegar.

  2. michael

    Dan S. you’re arguments are getting quirkier and more metaphorical each day…love it!

    Dan B. – your comment:
    “But we would also do well to end the propagation of this idea that density is just a fashion choice that needs to be marketed like a luxury appliance.”

    ULI, in my mind, has done a brilliant job in doing just this-like Dan S. alludes to so metaphorically, selling a different way of living is necessary, otherwise who is going to fill all these dense buildings? Guess the market will decide this, but all the same, those who have a choice may well choose living in multi-family building because of its design and amenities.

    it’s a both/and situation. We need density and good design -maybe not to appease all the NIMBYs, but to build our cities with humane and enduring qualities.

  3. Dan Staley

    Thank you daddy.

    Some time ago I blogged about this underlying topic; density is not for everyone when they have a choice – but what about when choices get reduced, and many want to move? In my view, there are a number of places here on the Front Range that do a great job of doing density: Belmar and Stapleton, and there’s Lowry for the big yard-SFD set are the exemplars IMHO.

    We need to do a better job at presenting density’s result not being 4 screaming brats on a tramp 3 feet from your dinner party. In that light, I second the ULI – I enjoy much of their stuff. Including their blog.

  4. JoshMahar

    while I understanding your frustration I think you need to be more careful in how you express your concerns.

    In the Beacon Hill TOD argument, it was consistently pointed out that you and other self-proclaimed “density advocates” have a way of saying things that sound incredibly “elitist”. When your rhetoric comes in the form of attacks it forces people’s responses to be reactionary and defensive. Most people agreed that density is where we should be headed but they are forced to defend the density they wouldn’t like instead of focusing on the density they would. As I have said before and I will say again, density simply means more people in a smaller area. It can manifested itself in a myriad of ways, not just rows of Beacon Towers.

    Furthermore, while you don’t specifically state it, I can only infer from your statements that you would like to see the city government take a more powerful role in neighborhoods by forcing them to accept what they may not be sure they want. This means undermining the ability of communities to influence the change and shape which their surroundings have. By taking away a neighborhood’s already limited right to self determination, you are also, effectively destroying the social fabric of that community. Perhaps I should remind you that cities are made of people not buildings. And as hard and long as it might take to make a neighborhood more dense, I can garuantee you that it takes a much, much longer time to foster and mature a strong, coherent community.

    Let me use an example. Ironically, it is highways and freeways. In the 1950s and 1960s city developers and planners had an idealistic view that efficient and easy access for cars was necessary for a “great” city of the future. The government used force to uproot and dismember communities and neighborhoods throughout cities in the name of this idealism. In the end, the destruction of these neighborhoods caused the blight and stagnation of cities that followed, and cities were generally abandon while people fled to suburbs to reclaim their community spirits.

    So it would do you good to tone down the “density-at-all-cost” mentality and realize that the argument is a lot more complex than that. Building livable, sustainable cities is something that has never been done before and without a nuanced discussion about how density should be implemented we run the risk of internally destroying the thing that makes this city, and any city really, so great, its collective mix of diversity.

  5. Dan Staley

    Josh, I read your comment above then went over to your blog to give it a whirl. I predict a fine future ahead for you if you keep this up. Go git ’em.

    That said, ‘elitist’ as used today is a lazy shorthand and should have no use in your vocabulary, as you have no need to drag someone down by demonization [ask Dan for my e-mail addy if you wonder why this is so and want to ask me].

    People of all sorts want to get things done and chafe at things when they don’t. Human nature is difficult to overcome – a sort of inertia in many aspects – and some are more impatient than others to get things moving; “why don’t they get it is something that a certain sort of planner says a lot. I have ratcheted down my expectations and instead have taken to ‘training the trainers’ to assuage my impatience for societal action. Nothing – nothing happens overnight unless it is a rush on Beanie Babies or the Christmas gift of the season. ;o)

    That said, I got word recently that I’m going to Atlanta to present some of these ideas, and I need to refine my recommendations & will likely do part of it here; I’d be happy to have you shred them.

  6. Sara N

    From Josh@4: “Furthermore, while you don’t specifically state it, I can only infer from your statements that you would like to see the city government take a more powerful role in neighborhoods by forcing them to accept what they may not be sure they want.”

    Josh: The city has certain realities. 1.7 million people are expected to join this region by 2040. Where are they going to go? Should the city go around, neighborhood by neighborhood, and ask “Will you please consider taking some of these people?” I believe that the city should be allocating growth to neighborhoods, and then, through neighborhood planning, let the neighborhoods decide the form that the growth takes. Maybe it is towers in some places, maybe it is increased density in SF areas in other places. Growth is an opportunity and an obligation that should be shared by all neighborhoods in this city. And the city should be setting the targets.

    As for the tone used by “density advocates,” I find it both refreshing and instrumental. There are certainly enough NIMBYs out there that rail with similar fervor against all change…so it is nice to have the other side represented as well. Is it the tone that the city should use? Of course not. But I am glad it is out there.

    And finally, I empathize with Dan B and the other bloggers here. I think they are aware of a real humanitarian crisis to which most folks are oblivious. Pick your crisis: global warming, peak oil, water quantity, food distribution, housing affordability… and for all of them, more compact and walkable urban development is a NECESSARY part of the solution. Ultimately it is not something about which our society should feel like we have a choice.

  7. dan bertolet

    DanS, I like your little scenario so much I want play it out and ask what you yourself would do in that situation? And don’t worry, I’m going to answer for you: when you heard about the food crisis you would be alarmed, and because you are a thoughtful and responsible person you would learn as much as you could about it, and when you found that there was a massive scientific consensus that the threat was real and potentially catastrophic, naturally you’d want to find out what the possible remedies are, and then you’d hear about this lab that has a food replacement, and you’d take the responsibility to learn about that, and you’d do research and maybe you’d even get a sample to try, and then you’d find out that it’s actually not as bad as you thought, that in fact it actually tastes pretty good once you give it a chance, and that it’s even better than the old food in unexpected ways. See how that works? No marketing required. The people who are saving your ass didn’t have to beg you to let them save your ass.

    The operative assumption in your position is that the vast majority of people are not as smart or responsible as you are, and so we must treat them like tantrum-prone toddlers. Perhaps that’s true, but if so, it’s pretty much game over. I still have some hope that people will rise to the challenge of our global crises once they fully understand what is going on. And the best way to get more people to understand is for the people who already do understand to tell the truth about it over and over and over, in the most forceful, unequivocal, and passionate terms possible. If we equivocate, or try to be too nice, or tell people that they don’t really need to do anything if they think it will be too much trouble, then people will not take us seriously. These global crises are so overwhelming yet so abstract, so hard to grasp and not go into denial, that it is all the more important that people repeatedly hear the truth told firmly and confidently.

    Oh, and by the way, we do not have a design problem. We have an implementation problem.

  8. Dan Staley

    Wow. You are ranting. Crikey.

    The operative assumption in your position is that the vast majority of people are not as smart or responsible as you are, and so we must treat them like tantrum-prone toddlers.

    Not only is that far over the top, it’s wrong*.

    My operative assumption is that our complex society saturates the typical citizen with information, and almost all folk apply a filter.

    In addition, the denial industry increases the S:N and our corporate media has abdicated its responsibility to filter out the noise.

    Nonetheless, the answer you provided for me has one slight flaw in it: if it was how it works, how come we are in this situation?

    In order for societies (or subsets thereof) to change, there must first be galvanization, then motivation, then organization. Without these three, there’s no movement.

    I had hoped the dialogue here would explore how examples of good design could be gathered and used to shape public dialogue into more positive images of density.

    Because I can tell you (from working the counter, among other ways of mingling with the publics) that lots of folk don’t want density. If we shove them into it because ‘its good for them’ (as opposed to ‘because they chose to move there’), then there will be a lot of grumpy neighborhoods. That’s a consequence we don’t want, so we need to prepare the soil first. As Josh said, preparing the soil with vinegar won’t help the seed much.

    Lastly, we have an implementation problem because there aren’t enough examples of good design that reg’lur folk like and demand.

    So let us start again: what can be done to make density a positive in discussion?

    * I can also tell you don’t work the counter at your firm. Oh, there’s no counter?

  9. dan bertolet

    I’d probably be doing everyone a big favor by deleting this entire post, but since I don’t seem to be doing a very good job of getting my point across, I’m going to try one more time.

    I write these posts assuming most readers have a solid understanding of urbanism, and so I don’t always explicitly state the basics. In this case, that would include: that it is counterproductive to try to force people to accept what they don’t like; that there are lots of people who don’t like density; that it is helpful to show people good examples of density; that there are many different ways to build density and no one best way; that top down planning has an ugly history; that community is important and fragile.

    My main point is that, given the extraordinary global circumstances we are facing, it’s time we started asking — and expecting — more people to take some responsibility for understanding their world and their impact on it, and to face up to the fact that we’re going to have to make some serious changes and it won’t be painless. We need to get beyond excuses like blaming the media. It would pretty much impossible at this point not to have heard about global warming. Even the concept of density has penetrated the pages of Time magazine.

    So when someone says they don’t want density, instead of bending over backwards trying to convince that person that density isn’t so bad, I’m suggesting we should start pushing back and ask, “OK, then what is your alternative plan for combating climate change?” It’s as if we’re trying to trick people into accepting density as a back door way to get the environmental benefits. Why not just emphasize the truth that density is a critical path solution to a very serious problem? Once people accept that density is necessary, if follows that they will be highly motivated to figure out how to make it as livable as possible.

    When Hitler was attacking England, Churchill didn’t go around setting up workshops to help people become more comfortable with war. He told them the truth that the threat was real and that extreme sacrifice was necessary. And the amazing thing is, people responded and made incredible things happen.

    Of course with climate change we don’t have bombs dropping in the streets. Thus the inspiration for people to step up and take responsibility has to come intellectually, and so is much more difficult to rouse. Which brings me to my second point on the need to spare no strong words about the threat of climate change and what should be done about it. I’m not saying that we should be yelling at people to move from single family homes to apartments. I’m saying we need to forcefully speak the truth until it sinks in and people rise to the challenge. But no one’s going to rise to the challenge if they aren’t challenged to do so.

  10. justin

    Good post Dan

    I live on the west edge of DT Bellevue. My street is full of lowrise condo’s and townhomes. This type of density could easily extend farther west and north, it’s a great neighboorhood to do this in.

    BUT, people buy in SFH ‘hoods because they like them, if Bellevue upzoned this nice SFH area there would be hell to pay.

    To give Bellevue credit they are upzoning the Bel Red area to be MUCH more dense, and see that region as the key to our grown in the next 20 years.

    My personal wish is more density that appeals to family’s, condo’s are almost always 2 bedrooms or less, and most of these new townhomes are complete eyesores. I have a newborn and don’t want to be forced to the hinterlands…

  11. saltinesgirl

    This is a GREAT read. This is why people are so opposed to density. Developers are building away – but the city IS NOT keeping up with the density. Where are the parks? The *safe* public spaces? (Let’s not forget the Beacon Hill groper).

  12. michael

    Good story on NPR this morning…Mayor of Houston talks about how gas prices are affecting the choices people make in terms of where they live and work. When asked what the government can do to get people to abandon their large lot SF living for denser living, the Mayor reponded that the market is essentially driving that equation…to boot, Houston’s lack of zoning may actually have resulted in a situation where people can more easily sort themselves in terms of being able to afford to live near to where they work…worth listening to:

  13. Steve

    saltinesgirl — do you really think our parks are overcrowded? I agree that there are public services that could be better kept up (transit is foremost, though I you could argue sidewalk maintenance is also up there), but it seems to me that parks aren’t a great example — with some exceptions (skate parks) they mostly seem underused to me.

  14. Josh Mahar

    Dan, I guess I just don’t know if your environmentalist argument really holds that much sway. I mean think about these individuals in SFH’s, especially in Seattle. Potentially they could be carless and bike, walk, or bus everywhere. In addition, perhaps they have a personal garden in which they grow a bit of their own food. They certainly can’t do that in condos, unless they wait 2 to 3 years to get a P-patch.

    Perhaps you say that they are taking up space others could have and thus, pushing people out farther into exurbs, but remember this is all within the context of the Growth Management Act. This essentially means that our growth is (supposedly) fixed and so in the grander region we are forced to get denser. (Now, I’ll admit that this Act is constantly being dismember in State Congress so its efficacy is debatable)

    Not to mention that cities can also be huge drains on the environment. Concentrating too many people in one area means a larger exploitation of the surrounding area. Cities lack any meaningful agriculture or industry. So, while we can all walk or bike to friend’s houses and to restaurants and shops, the denser we are the farther we have to ship our foods and other material goods. Pheonix is a wonderful (or terrible) example of this.

    I think when we argue for denser cities, while the environmental benefits can be good, the reasons have to be more than that. The safety, the diversity, the community. The sheer intensity of life and culture. Aren’t these the arguments that Mumford used for the benefit of cities (although I can’t say I know him well. I just started The Myth and the Machine. On your recommendation of course)

  15. serial catowner

    A lot of this has a ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ tone to it.

    The fact is, we’re already forced to do this, that, and the other thing. You come into a built environment and look for your ecological niche. Like a beach scoured by tides and storms, that niche is always changing. In fact, for most of us, the only hope of any stability is to sign on to a plan that looks to the future.

    In the late 20th century, life in Seattle was an incredible bargain, because of two things- cheap gas and racial prejudice. So many people had moved out of town that those who chose to stay had the best of both worlds. It was, in fact, largely suburb within city limits.

    But both of those factors were transitory- they would go the way of the dodo bird and the historical forces favoring density would regain their sway.

    A century ago, Turner described the closing of the frontier. Since then, the population has increased about five times.

    Understandably, people who have a nice SFH would like to write some laws “keeping the developers out”. A lot of their optimism about the ability to do that is based on their experience of the extremely low “urban tide” of the past 50 years. Well, guess what, the tide is coming in now. The question is not how the tide can be stopped, but how it can be channeled.

    Is Seattle required to take more population? Of course it is! For decades the state and King County have built roads, power lines, sewage plants, airports and port facilities, all based on the assumption that Seattle was the city. Seattle is not in a position to suddenly say, “Oh, we’ve changed our minds, we don’t want to be the city- someone else will have to do that”.

    To live in Seattle, you need a thick skin and deaf ear to put up with the demagogues who always get their say in the daily papers. Anyone who lived through the Seattle Commons debacle will know what I’m saying.

    Sure, Fox, the Stranger, and the auto dealer managed to kill the Commons plan, but that didn’t stop development in South Lake Union, it just made it worse.

    And that, in my opinion, is one of the lessons that needs to be taught.

  16. dan bertolet

    Josh @14 – yes! There are many advantages of urban density besides reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and Mumford and many others have recognized this for decades. If I have been neglecting these other benefits, it is only because climate change is a relatively new and huge problem.

    Your point about cities potentially becoming more unsustainable when they get too big is also a good one. That is the kind of critical analysis I would expect to hear from people who oppose growth, but never do.

    In my opinion, Mumford and his cohorts had a brilliant concept for city design that Mumford calls the “regional city” (see The City in History) and has its origins in Howard’s “Garden City.” But to do that here, we’d have to break up Seattle into four of five pieces and then put green belts between the pieces — not exactly practical

  17. LisaB

    I really think the bit quoted below is such a key point. If a city is growing and has to find good ways to accomodate that growth, we have to ask the tough question and make it clear that the status quo is not really an option:

    “So when someone says they don’t want density, instead of bending over backwards trying to convince that person that density isn’t so bad, I’m suggesting we should start pushing back and ask, “OK, then what is your alternative plan for combating climate change?” ”

    And the difficulty for me comes when citizens who are opposing a 6 storey mixed-use development (far too dense! they say) on the site of a dying mall tell me that their SFH are more environmentally friendly because they have lawns while the new development has little green space. That is such a gap in perspectives/understanding I don’t quite know where to begin.

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