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.