More on Increased Urban Density


Life in a 19th century New York Tenement.

I am getting  a bit roughed up here on issues related to the need for increased density in the next city. Friends, colleagues, even siblings are suggesting that my recent proposals to use existing rights-of-way (streets, alleys) as sites for new construction illustrate that I am a slap-happy historic homewrecker gleefully headed back to the miserably teeming tenements of the 19th century. Okay then.

I have in recent posts (in fact in many of the posts here over the last year or so) advocated a substantial increase in density as a way of increasing urban walkability, and access to a much broader mixture of uses, goods and services in nodal neighborhoods of a mile or two in diameter, connected to one another by geometrically increased transit options. I believe that a substantial increase in density enables and induces a host of urgently needed changes in the way we organize and inhabit our cities: new kinds of infrastructure to deliver and distribute energy, water, mobility and food, in radically revised and enhanced fashion.

I guess some of my readers think that I advocate this:



Or this:



While I find much that is admirable and valid about slums from a variety of points of view, I am certainly not advocating this form of construction for Washington or Chicago or Denver (though the burgeoning tent city in Sacramento comes eerily closer to these images).

Some readers have asked me to make the suburbs more dense first – to stop fussing with existing, even historic urban quarters, and to go out to the land of shopping malls and quarter acre lots. Fine. I guess I have always taken that as a given. The house where I grew up, now altered almost beyond recognition, sits in a Chicago suburb made possible by cars.


The house where I grew up.

So – no cars, now what? I will leave rethinking the suburbs to another moment, but I do note that this pattern of  auto-dominated human settlement is doomed, Chevy Volt notwithstanding. 3,000 pound personal transportation devices are officially obsolete.

Instead, I believe that there are perfectly livable, in fact highly attractive, examples of the good urban life lived in close quarters: dense, mixed use neighborhoods (much more dense than most, though not all,  US cities). That seems to be a central issue with my critics – livability. Which seems to be equated with how close buildings are to one another, somehow.

I have shown these images often, but here’s a rerun of a few. Note that most of the buildings are not more than 6 or 7 stories, they are quite close together (often less than 20 or 30 feet apart), and they are not miserable tenements, but instead interesting, dense, mixed use urban places. Oh, and take a look at the fact that in most of these images the neighborhoods have been altered, adjusted, and added to over time. Most feature new and old in close juxtaposition. So here goes.

                                 1  2  3

                                 4         5        6

                                 71  81  91

Gijon, Santa Cruz, Lisbon, Barcelona, Lisbon, Barcelona, Funchal, Cadiz, New York.

Dense. Not too tall. Close together – or very close. Changing and aggregating over time. Lots of mixed uses. Not slums or tenements. Interesting, textured, rich places. Jacob Riis indeed – add a few bio-swales and were ready to go, right?

On to the suburbs.

4 thoughts on “More on Increased Urban Density

  1. Thanks for including these images, which provide a helpful sounding board for this discussion. Just to be clear, my worry is not that your proposal would lead to tenements or rambling Hoovervilles. My worry is that remaking an existing residential, historic neighborhood extinguishes its sense of place and the very qualities that allow it to become successeful, unique, identifiable and even a porthole (or portal) into a different time.

    I don’t think we have to go to the suburbs to densify. In fact, the market forces in our old home town would definitely not like quintupling the density on Ouilmette Lane.

    What’s wrong with finding and adapting lands from the former industrial economy–often close in to urban cores–and targeting them for thoughtful densification?

    Might be of interest here to quantify population growth projections for our major cities to gauge the depth and width of the coming demography.

  2. You have been quite clear. I know you are not worried about possible tenements arising from my proposal. Others are, however, and have said so here.

    Anyway, some thoughts. First, as to market forces in the suburbs, you are correct. The folks who live in the town we grew up in, with their houses now worth 10 or 20 times what they were worth when we were children, would not welcome density.

    But in the Washington region, and I suspect in many metropolitan areas around the country, suburban housing stock is having the most difficult time holding value. And the most stable values, even during the current real estate meltdown, are in existing urban neighborhoods. Capitol Hill is holding value better than almost any place in our town, and way better than the suburbs. We have lost value, to be sure. But not like suburban Virginia or suburban Maryland.

    So as it becomes harder and harder to sustain suburban places, how will they respond? I don’t know, but I suspect that these places will need to make adjustments to survive. The suburbs here that are most analagous to where we grew up are all opting for density, and mixed use. This is a very interesting question, worth further exploration.

    As to what we can expect demographically, let me just run a few numbers passed you. The current US population is 303,824,640, according to a CIA estimate from last July. And 80% of Americans live in urban conditions. That means that about 60,000,000 do not.

    So without taking population growth into consideration, but speculating that rural life will be harder to sustain in the future and urban life easier to sustain (this may seem debatable, but I think I can make a pretty good case), it seems to me that a measurable percentage of the 60 million non-urbanites will be eyeing urban opportunities. You can pick a number that feels right, but in any event, it’s a lot of folks.

    In other parts of the world, urbanization is happening at a much faster rate – in some places, like China and India, at a breathtaking rate. So how do we accomodate this growth?

    Of course you are right to suggest that we adapt land that is not in heavy use first for new, dense development – former industrial land, abandoned lots, and other similar places. The downside here is that we are starting from scratch in these places. Okay, though: let’s start there first.

    But that still doesn’t make my neighborhood work the way it should, or yours. I still have to spend an hour or so going on foot for food, and you still have to get in the car. I can ride my bicycle when the weather allows, as can you, but it’s easy to wish for a greater mix of retail and other services closer to hand.

    Maybe what happens will go like a recent development here has gone. A former convent, from the 1870s or so, had been morphed into the National Children’s Museum. The museum sold the land to a developer and moved out, and the developer knocked down all but the oldest landmarked bits and built mid-rise ‘lofts.’ The site is probably is now about 6 or 7 times more dense than it was, 500 units, and it seems likely to attract a food store and other retail in the future. The development anchors the rapidly – until recently – redeveloping H Street corridor, once a bustling and thriving mixed use street. And all of this is about 5 blocks away – a much easier walk.

    So maybe what happens is that historic districts like ours, or yours, become ringed by much more dense development, so that the things we need within a short walk are nearby.

    I’ll have to go back now and look at our historic district, and take a look at where the much more dense, and somewhat taller, ring will occur in order to serve the 6,600 or so buildings of the historic zone. In this scenario, we become a kind inverse of what Chicago’s Loop was once. There, it was all the tall buildings surrounded by less dense, and shorter, development. (Recent development in Chicago has erased this once clear distinction – now it’s tall for as far as you can see).

    I will take another look. All the while, though, I will fret about any part of any city that is of only one type of use – only residential, or only commercial, or only anything. This does not feel tenable to me in the long run. Back to the drawing board.

  3. Because my neighborhood is an historic neighborhood, I don’t have to spend an hour going for food. Pretty much everything we need–from food to the library to a bunch of great restaurants, galleries, hardware stores, schools, dentists, eye doctors, vino, etc.–is a 10 minute walk, maximum. And it’s a very pleasant walk at that. I think that makes our shared point. This is the kind of neighborhood we need more of.

  4. I note that we too live in an historic neighborhood. Our house is a National Landmark, and the Capitol Hill Historic District numbers over 8,000 buildings. The retail tradition here on the Hill has historically been the corner store. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that in the old days, most of these sold food and other things as well.

    Today, most of the few that are left are pretty trashy. And expensive – considerably marked up over supermarket prices. The paucity of Capitol Hill retail and service options is a constant topic of conversation among neighbors here.

    Oh well. On to other topics, I think. Consider yourself lucky, which I know you do.

    We’ll hope that the H Street Corridor revives when the economy gets going again – it was once an amazing commercial concentration. Some new restaurants are opening (down near 12th or 13th – a bit of a stroll), a legit theater, a great but very expensive Italian deli, and a terrific coffee shop at 3rd or so. Lots of boarded up buildings otherwise, but hope for revival. Onward.

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