Can we afford the high costs of low-density sprawl?
Apartments at Pearl, near downtown San Antonio
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A case for urban density, Part 2
“Small-town feel” in the big city: Young and old shop at a Sunday street market on Chicago’s Division Street.
core, with more nearing completion or beginning construction, indicates a large demand for urban density and the way of life that it is uniquely able to provide. These apartments are filling up mainly with two demographic groups — single people or couples in their 20s and 30s, and empty nesters. A lot of people in both groups prefer not to own cars; they’d rather spend their discretionary income on travel, good restaurants, entertainment and, yes, bicycles. These are people, too, who don’t wish to waste away their lives isolated in suburban tract houses where there’s nothing to do but mow the lawn, watch television and wait for the undertaker; they want places to walk to, they seek the company of others.
“Open letter to the San Antonio establishment,”
August 12, 2014
In hislocal blogger Daniel Puckett links opposition to VIA’s backburnered downtown streetcar to widespread distaste for urban density. He patiently explains to “the establishment” why density is bad. His brief against density can be fairly summarized thus: He doesn’t like it. I have to admit, that’s a very persuasive argument. Let’s see if I can counter it.
First, the success of new apartment buildings in the Pearl, along lower Broadway, on South Flores and Cevallos streets and in the downtown
But Mr. Puckett evidently agrees with the old power elite of San Antonio that young people and old people shouldn’t be allowed to make that choice. If you prefer urban density, he suggests you move to one of the “many cities that offer the lifestyle you find attractive.”
A lot of people in recent decades have chosen to live in low-density but mixed and walkable neighborhoods near downtown. I’ve seen the revival of King William, Lavaca, Monte Vista, Alta Vista, Mahncke Park, Jefferson, Beacon Hill and my own neighborhood, Monticello Park. Most of us in these neighborhoods applaud the emergence of higher-density urban neighborhoods in our midst because they bring larger markets to support shops, restaurants, cultural institutions and jobs that also benefit us.
Mr. Puckett is dismissive of the economic virtues of urban density. He is of the opinion that those virtues have been rendered moot by new technology. He is wrong.
On the matter of sustainability, the facts are all on the side of higher density. Low density, in combination with the land-use segregation and poor street connectivity that became standard suburban practice after the 1960s, requires more and longer trips by car and thus produces more harmful emissions. That suburban formula also reduces the efficiency and raises the cost (or reduces the availability) of all manner of public services. Fewer residences per square mile, coupled with the cul de sac streets that have become de rigueur in the suburbs, require garbage trucks to spend more time and use more fuel traveling longer distances to serve fewer customers. Low density reduces the efficiency and usability of mass transit — including bus service, not just rail transit — and increases its cost per passenger mile, thus increasing the public subsidy necessary to sustain it.
The lawns that are so central to low-density suburban culture demand enormous amounts of water to keep them green. (Granted, I almost never water my lawn, which comprises whatever greenery can survive on its own without coddling, but I don’t have a homeowners association trying to run my life, as a lot of suburbanites do.)
Commuting by car, one of the hallmarks of low-density suburbia, has been identified as a factor favoring obesity, a condition that imposes both personal and public costs.
I will enthusiastically acknowledge that the Internet has opened up a wide, wonderful world of possibilities for human interaction that does not require physical proximity. Still, geographic proximity retains a unique power as an engine for the exchange of ideas and, hence, for the creation of economic value. (For the detailed argument, see The Poetics of Cities: Designing Neighborhoods That Work, by some fellow named Greenberg. Readers might also find it instructive to consult Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.)
For most of its history, San Antonio’s economy depended on extraction, agriculture, the military, regional trade and visitation. These legacy industries are not to be sneezed at, and they certainly require intelligence, perseverance and risk-taking. But the rising industries, accounting for an increasing share of economic activity and wages across the country, are those that are producing precisely the “changes in technology” that Mr. Puckett cites as rendering urban density no longer necessary. Where do those changes come from? Who dreams them up? Who designs them? Who writes the code to make them real? Who markets them? The people with the skills, the interests and the aptitudes to create new value in emerging industries are overwhelmingly young. And young people are drawn to cities with vibrant urban cultures.
The rise of the Internet and the ubiquity of mobile devices has not lessened the demand for physical places of socializing, recreation, serendipitous meetings, discussion, and in-person encounters with new experiences. To the contrary, such places have greatly proliferated with the rise of the Internet. Nor is the Internet likely to obviate one particular type of exchange that many value-creating young people inexplicably hold in high esteem — the exchange of bodily fluids.
Dense, diverse, lively, pedestrian-friendly urban neighborhoods are essential to attracting and retaining the bright young people who create value in ideas, which reified become products, which exchanged become wealth.
If San Antonio remains “the kind of city that it is,” as Mr. Puckett defines it, then San Antonio is condemned forever to remain a town of low wages, low educational attainment and low expectations; a town where we are free to choose among options that in the main are created and packaged in distant places, not those we create ourselves.
And that “small-town feel” Mr. Puckett finds so enchanting? Where in the post-1960 suburbs can that be found? There’s certainly no “small-town feel” in the anodyne, homogenous (like milk, as Anna Russell would say) housing tracts or in the chain eateries that predominate in the suburbs. Countless neighborhoods in big, bad Chicago nd New York — and in the densest areas of San Antonio, rich and poor — can boast more “small-town feel” than Mr. Puckett’s beloved suburbia.
I do not assert that the entire metropolis has to be as dense as Greenwich Village or Chicago’s Gold Coast. Low-density suburban subdivisions will continue to be part of the mix, as they should (with design improvements to allow residents to walk or bike to at least a small retail center). But concentrated areas of high density and mixed use — concentrations sufficient to justify rail transit — are also necessary for the long-term economic health of the whole metropolis.
Why is that? Read on.