Density Derangement Syndrome

Lately I’ve noticed a number of urbanist blogs disparaging a straw man standing in for other urbanists’ advocacy of greater density. Jim Russell, a writer whose work I find insightful and original, linked approvingly to this Surly Urbanism post pushing back on Angie Schmitt’s defense of Richard Florida.

I’m still making my way through the economic development papers Surly linked to, but I think this section on the politics is just about as wrongheaded as you can get:

Frankly, this argument is pure neoliberal, trickled-down economics. Thirty years of local, state and federal policies that have favored the interests of economic and political elites have shown us that simply assuming that the success of one group will help others is wrong. Amenity-based development, “placemaking” projects, the varied accoutrements of the sustainable city like farmers markets and bike infrastructure, the intense redevelopment of central cities, the conversion of industrial land, and any other array of city or regional policy decisions and priorities are NOT value neutral or apolitical and have a disparate impact on city populations.. Let me repeat: city and regional policy decisions and priorities are NOT value neutral or apolitical and have a disparate impact on city populations. The way many of these policies have been rolled out in American cities have seeded and exacerbated displacement, gentrification, housing affordability crises, and increased income inequality. To say that the interests of “creatives” and the poor or communities of color implies an overlap that in many cities simply does not exist. There are legitimate trad off decisions and real winners and losers when it comes to policy and planning decisions and we should honestly interrogate the disparate impacts of amenity-based planning strategies instead of effacing the real conflicts and decisions that undergird creative class policy.

He wants livable cities, though!

This argument is a good intentions argument. I’ll be honest, I don’t care if Richard Florida wants livable cities. If his concept of the livable city is synonomous with the creative city, then he can have it. Livability, like his own version of creativity, are not immune from political challenge or analytical critique. If livability is dependent upon the displacement of poor people and communities of color, then I will fight livability as it is presented with every fiber of my being and any planner or urbanist who is concered with social justice should be skeptical of livability discourse claims that do not deal with poverty or social inequality explicitly. The risk of perpetuating already incredibly unequal social relations is simply to great.

It’s true that land use prescriptions are inseparable from politics, but this is a reason to favor increased density. For all the imperfections of denser cities, they provide more and better opportunities for their poorer residents than any other land use configuration.

The primary virtue of density is simply that it creates a larger market for service businesses. A city with 800 people per square mile can support more Chinese restaurants than a town with 100 people per square mile, and will allow for more specialization and choice. Wages tend to be higher in higher density areas than in lower density areas. Proximity is the lifeblood of a modern service economy. Businesses in the non-tradable sector rely on proximity to lots of people, and will do more business in an area with lots of customers nearby than in an area with relatively few customers nearby. You also need a certain amount of density to support frequent public transit service, particularly if you’re looking to minimize the amount of subsidies required.

If rents are unaffordable in places that create nice urban amenities, I am not sure why we would rule out the most obvious explanation – that many more people want to live in safe urban areas with nice amenities than exist in the United States. That is, we’re seeing rent inflation because we’ve built too little housing in these places, not because we’ve built too much, and not because the amenities are too nice.

Like I said in my last post on Richard Florida, nobody seems to be disagreeing with the evidence that nominal service sector wages are higher in dense areas with lots of amenities. The issue is that rent inflation eats up most of those wage gains, making it a wash for lower income residents. But poor people are still more likely to reside in cities than in lower density areas, because they’re drawn to the higher wages and lower transportation costs. As the Center for Neighborhood Technology showed in a recent report, when you consider combined housing and transportation costs, some of the cities with high housing costs start to look more affordable, and some of the cities with low housing costs but longer commutes start to look less affordable as more people are forced to own and maintain cars.

There’s nothing about an amenity-based development strategy that inevitably results in out of control housing prices. That’s a direct result of bad city land use policies – parking minimums, housing caps, a seriatim approval process for new development, and worst of all, failure to capture unearned land rents. When neighborhoods see more demand for housing, the guy with the vacant lot gets an unearned windfall. If cities taxed only land and collected more land taxes as site values increased, as much from vacant lots and surface parking lots as built-up parcels, new housing construction would more closely track the demand for housing. I’ve also advocated paying for public transportation with land taxes on the land around transit stations as a (partial) replacement for fares. There are plenty of good ways to cut rents if that’s your aim. Rising land prices due to factors like nice amenities, lower crime and better schools do not have to mean a higher cost of living, if cities respond with active steps to lower the cost of living. You can’t blame Richard Florida for cities managing their growth poorly once his prescriptions start to work.

The weirdest thing about this post is the idea that livability strategies now dominate economic development thinking in the country. In fact, it seems to me that only very recently have we started to see a small number of smaller cities trying out a more urbanist policy mix. And even when some of these ideas are tried, there is still intense political opposition to some of the most important land use reforms – unbundling parking from housing, and allowing more mixed uses by-right, and allowing greater building heights and population density. Not only are these policies not the dominant policies in most cities, you still can’t get politicians to eliminate parking minimums in New York City and San Francisco – two of the most walkable cities with the most comprehensive public transportation networks. No matter how popular you imagine Richard Florida to be with the country’s urban planners, the fact is that the most popular urbanist prescriptions for deflating rents are mostly running up against a political dead-end and remain untried in most cities.

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