Full Disclosure

The Paradox of Urban Density

The good, the bad, and the ugly

By Phillip Lopate | December 2, 2016
Alan Bloom/Flickr
Alan Bloom/Flickr


The older I get, the less sure I become about certain pet ideas I had thought were written in stone. Part of this uncertainty comes from my tendency to want to turn my convictions upside-down, just for the fun of seeing the other side; but another part has to do with the way history and time yield unexpected kinks in my belief system. Lately I’ve been thinking about urban density: Is it a good or bad thing?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives exposing the abysmal living conditions of tenement dwellers in New York’s Five Points district and Lower East Side, and the recurrent plagues of infectious diseases that would sweep through the slums, killing off hundreds if not thousands, a consensus arose that tightly jammed-together dwellings for immigrants and poor people were an evil that needed to be corrected. The buildings were seen as pestilential in themselves, lacking in sunlight and ventilation and thus “miasmic,” to use the term then in circulation. Legislation was passed to ensure that new tenements under construction would have to allow for windows and airshafts. But the slums remained slums, so social reformers began clamoring for these ramshackle districts to be demolished and replaced by more modern hygienic structures.

The upshot, starting with the New Deal and continuing into the postwar era, was an ambitious, federally funded urban renewal program, which engaged in slum clearance and replaced the old tenements with high-rise public housing. These “projects” have been so roundly disparaged, most notably from Jane Jacobs’s 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities onward, that we sometimes forget they sprang from idealistic motives to improve the living conditions of the poor. Many of the initial residents rejoiced at the chance to move into clean, modern apartments, and the waiting lists for vacancies in New York projects continue to be long, given that city’s shortage of affordable housing. If the social reformers seemed to follow the towers in the park schema recommended by Le Corbusier, it was not because they were so enamored of that quirky French architect’s urbicidic vision, but because they were trying to bring down the density figures in these neighborhoods by providing enough grass and public space between the high-rise buildings—enough sun and air.

But Jacobs had been right to criticize the loss of community feeling, as retail stores were eliminated and foot traffic was curtailed by projects that seemed to turn their backs on the street. Jacobs also took aim at the proponents of garden cities, who hoped to reduce urban noise and visual clutter by decentralizing strategies that would build new, orderly communities and siphon off some of the big cities’ population. (Examples of such experiments actually built include Radburn, New Jersey, and Sunnyside Gardens, Queens.)

Here we come to a basic semantic conflict: the garden city champions, such as Ebenezer Howard, Patrick Geddes, Clarence Stein, and Lewis Mumford, employed the word “congestion” with its negative connotation, arguing that some limits should be set on the demographics per acre, while the anti-garden city followers of Jane Jacobs preferred the more neutral term “density.”

I, being a lover of big cities, crowds and the whole hurly-burly spectacle of street life, was a total Jane Jacobs follower. I saw no reason to “tidy up” the city or thin out its population. I scoffed at New Town propaganda like The City, a WPA documentary short by Ralph Steiner that showed the lunch-hour masses thronging the streets of New York as if this were something to be appalled instead of excited by, followed by shots of happy children on tricycles circling suburban lawns. The assumption of the New Towners seemed to be that big-city density reduced the individual to an ant or automaton—a concept I wholly rejected because it was not true to my experience. America had long suffered from this sort of anti-urban bias, and I was having none of it.

In recent decades, an interesting turnabout has occurred. Suddenly, density began to be embraced by city planners. It was decoupled from prior identification with slums; swanky Park Avenue apartment houses, it was pointed out, had some of the highest densities in the country. Greenwich Village, the neighborhood Jane Jacobs had held up as an exemplar of good urban living, had the same density as Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis housing project that had seen as an abject failure and dynamited. Moreover, as global warming became increasingly worrying, urban density seemed to have ecological benefits, as it required a smaller electric grid, used up less energy than exurban sprawl, took less of a bite out of agricultural land and forests, and made mass transportation a more viable option. “Infill” became a rallying-cry: closing the gaps in the city’s fabric with new construction, rather than spreading out further, by amalgamating—swallowing up—smaller municipalities at the borders.

For a while, I was perfectly contented, even smug, to be on the winning side of the congestion/density debate. But then I started to wonder about some of the downsides of density, especially with megalopolises. Ten cities around the world have populations greater than 15 million, and 15 cities have more than 10 million residents. In New Delhi and Beijing, air pollution is so severe that schools are closed down for days at a time and children told to stay indoors. Enormous traffic jams choke the roads. In Shanghai, which I visited a few months ago, there were seemingly unending walls of high-rise housing estates—not because Le Corbusier was back in fashion, but because with a population estimated between 24 and 28 million, you’re going to need a lot of apartments. Even given all the new construction, Shanghai real estate is scandalously expensive. Land prices being so inflated, the first neighborhoods to be wiped out were the older, traditional, low-rise ones. With them went a good deal of the charm and historical memory of the city. Aesthetics ends up taking a back seat to the brute dictates of capital and technology.

I find myself thinking, heretically: maybe Howard, Geddes, Stein, and Mumford had a point when they argued that some limits should be placed on population growth so that a city might continue to be, well, livable. Then again, “livable” is itself a moving target, capable of being continuously revised and readjusted depending on extremities of circumstance. Maybe the hour has passed when such density restrictions could even be enforced—in which case, garden cities might turn out to be an attractive temporary solution. Or should we say, as the experts do, that there is “good density” and “bad density” and leave it at that?

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