Urban Density: A Layman’s Perspective

I am not an urban planner, though I do have the dream that in 50 years time American cities will look a lot different than they do today. While living in Spain and exploring much of Europe I have discovered that the quality of life in my urban environment is leaps ahead of American urban or Suburban life for many reasons. The primary reason of this being density.

I can certainly attest to the issues that arise with density, but to my mind main difficulty for adopting density on an American level is that we haven’t figured out how to change our lifestyles enough in order to allow ourselves to embrace it. However, maybe a better path to this is to realize the ways we are being robbed by not organizing ourselves toward density.

One of the things that a sprawling, suburban environment does is that it robs us of the freedom to enjoy nature outside the city. While I am a big proponent of urban farms and green space,  the beautiful transition from the city to the countryside in Europe can be breathtaking. Homes in low-density, rural environments are usually organized into smaller villages with the surrounding fields, as opposed to our model of individual homesteads with one house for every 20 acres or so. In our American rural environment we have robbed ourselves of the community that a village might offer, and are losing the value that human connections might offer. Some cities such as the Portland metropolitan area have maintained excellent urban growth boundaries for years, but these are becoming more permeable, not maintaining the reason for which they were established.

Additionally, our sprawl robs us of the ability to engineer adequate public transport systems that have the right economies of scale. While there are some signs of hope in the USA, the fact is that without sufficient density there is no incentive to take public transportation (because cars are still too easy to take) and also there is not a sufficient tax / ridership base to support the transportation. Instead of engineering public transportation for all, underfunded systems have engineered it for neither rich nor poor. The rich don’t take it, and the poor can’t afford to live in an area close in enough to afford public transportation.

Finally, while I used to believe that the market was the great equalizer of housing prices and where people ought to live, I am coming to see that this is not always the case. Stable community relationships tend to make neighborhoods safer, better run and establish a network of support to create better lives. I don’t think that rent subsidies are the way, though they may be a temporary patch solution, but rather I think that planning is the most important tool to maintain a well running city and region.  Not planning for an influx in density is dangerous, because it means that we may be organizing our society in less connected environments without due support for transportation and with the obligation to drive everywhere.

Again, I am no expert on the matter, however, having lived a better life in an urban environment in Spain has shown me that so much more is possible for American cities. Perhaps we just need to open our minds to some new, old possibilities.