I would like to compile and explore some of the downsides and challenges of urban densification.
There are some downsides which are disadvantages in the aggregate and others which affect people on an individual/household basis. There are some disadvantages and challenges which are merely based on faulty perceptions and others which are real. All kinds are pertinent as long as they’re obstacles to densification.
The purpose here is not to debate whether urban densification is worth it or whether particular disadvantages of it are worth it. While a particular motive for opposing it may or may not be selfish, the morality of its selfishness isn’t up for debating (because that would put it into Great Debate territory).
Basically, I want to better understand the obstacles to urban densification without getting dragged down into a debate about whether or not there should be urban densification. If someone wants to have that debate, that’s fine but people should have the opportunity to have a thread which explores the opposition and obstacles without debating densification itself.
Let’s start with the most obvious one: land cost. Let’s say you have all your development within a one-mile radius of Point X. Obviously the land is going to get more and more expensive within that radius. At some point, the cost difference between the developed are and the undeveloped area will become so great that there’s a strong economic incentive to expand development to new (cheaper) areas.
Another factor is land use. If you’re dealing with a one-mile radius around Point X, any expansion is going to mean contraction of something else. More shopping, more schools, bigger factories, whatever, means less land available for other use. (Yes, some of that can be ameliorated by going vertical, but a factory, for example, is not often well suited to being built on multiple floors.)
Sewage, water and electricity are generally easier and cheaper to organise in more densely populated areas. This is one of the advantages of densification. The same goes for transportation, once the population density reaches a point where efficient mass transit becomes economically viable. Gridlock is more usually found in cities where people have little option but to make all their journeys by car, and where an awful lot of them want to travel to the same place at the same time, which is typically found where a small (and often long-established) city centre is surrounded by extensive low-density suburbs.
One thing is the provision of Public Open Space - as densification increases, the area of easily-reachable available public space per resident is going to go down quite a bit. This is offset by the densification freeing up outlying POS, but it’s not the same as everyone having a park in easy walking distance. Proper urban planning deals with this just fine using infill spaces and green corridors coupled with managed densification (London, for instance, is surprisingly green) but not all densification projects would be that forward-thinking.
You can make this argument about any limited common good, like parking spaces, etc. but like I said, there are counterarguments too.
Personally, I don’t see major downsides to densification if properly managed. Certainly I don’t subscribe to the idea that everyone is owed their own acre of back yard.
Something happened yesterday that goes directly to the post I made then. Here’s a story in today’s paper about a hospital that claims to have outgrown its downtown location and wants to build a new facility out in the suburbs. In its press conference the CEO used terms like “landlocked.” The current hospital is on 17 acres and 60 years old, the proposed new one will be on 114 acres.
How about crime? One of the major forces driving the flight to the suburbs, from the past right up to today, is the desire to get out of “bad” areas.
ETA: It isn’t really a racial thing, either. Look at trends over the past decade or two. Blacks don’t want to live in high-crime cities any more than whites do, and those with the resources to move out, do.
Historical note - I forget where it was, I recall some situation where the original town was surrounded by a wall. During a long peace, people had built up to and against the wall, and also against the wall on the outside, making defense difficult when war returned. A solid wall means 1/4 of your house is already built, and being near the fortification is almost as good as being inside.
The Romans built aqueducts to supply their main cities. Simple water supply is a major necessity, tied to public health and quality of life. Some aqueducts are incredible; the Pont de Gard is part of a 50-mile aqueduct built to bring water to Nimes. Rome was surrounded by these aqueducts. You can still visit a massive underground cistern in Istanbul (not Constantinople) that the Romans built, filled at the time with water from one of the aqueducts. Quite frequently when neglect, war, or earthquakes caused the aqueducts to fail, the town had to be abandoned. The town of Petra in Jordan survived on an elaborate aqueduct channel that brought water through the narrow Sook (canyon) into the town. When the water supply failed after a major earthquake around 600AD damaged the system, the thriving town was abandoned and completely forgotten for a millennium. In this day of instant running hot and cold water, we tend to forget how difficult the engineering is to ensure this supply. There are a number of aqueducts and massive dams in upstate New York to feed the city. IIRC, there was an action movie about 10 years ago where the showdown was set in a new water supply tunnel near New York, and the tunnel was extremely large, over 40 feet in diameter.
There’s nothing that sense that densely settled areas have to have higher crime rates. Crime rates are linked to socioeconomic factors, and if the densely settled areas are badly managed, badly maintained, congested, etc, then they become undesirable places to live, the population becomes increasingly poorer and more alienated, etc. etc.
Often this is the case with older, densely-populated urban areas surrounded by newer, less dense suburbs. The traffic, etc, coming in from the suburbs overwhelms the urban area, reducing the quality of life for everyone. Families tend to move to the suburbs because they want houses with yards, leaving the city increasingly occupied by single people, older people and people who can’t afford suburban houses, all of whom tend to be poorer. Etc, etc.
These are problems that can be addressed through good urban planning. It is possible to foster greater population density without also fostering poverty, and you wouldn’t expect a higher crime rate to result.
I’d expect that high density areas may have more crime not because of the density but because crime (especially the kind that scares people) is concentrated among the poor and poor people can often only afford to live in high density areas. It’s analogous to why you’ll find a lot of injured people in hospitals; It’s not because hospitals cause injuries but because injured people tend to go to hospitals.
And then you get a vicious cycle as the area grows worse which makes it so that the only people left in it are those who can’t leave.
Although I agree that there is certainly the perception that with density will come crime. I think the causality doesn’t go from Higher Density -> Higher Crime Rate.
I’ll offer a more psychosocial one: lack of physical privacy, which leads to a much greater psychological/emotional privacy out of politeness, which leads to a greatly lessened sense of community and social support amongst neighbors.
What do I mean? I mean that I don’t know the names of the people that live in my building, much less my block, and fuggedabout my whole neighborhood. I don’t want to. I want to give them their emotional space, and I want them to give me my emotional space, and that means a lot of pretending we don’t see/hear/smell each other. In an emergency, I could go to them for help, like to call an ambulance, but I’m not going to borrow a cup of sugar or lend them my car to go to the store. My husband, who spent 25 years living in a classic small town, is boggled by this intentional psycho-privacy thing, and often needs to be reminded not to talk the neighbor’s ear off about personal matters.
This is the big practical reason for the US. We’ve spent two generations at least being told that the Single-Family residential subdivision is the Good Life. Getting folks to let go of that will be a major hurtle for planners as well as a major cultural shift. A lot of my fellow planners keep going on about compact walkable living in thriving city centers and well-defined multi-use communities. They seem oblivious to the fact that down here in FLA, not only do the folks currently living here not want that, neither do the folks coming down to retire. The vision they support certainly appeals to young, healthy, urban hipsters. But it just does NOT look good to aging baby boomers who want a big lawn, a Mcmansion, and a two-car garage for their SUVs.
And I’ve actually had people tell me that they don’t want to walk anywhere. They’d rather drive 10 minutes than walk one. My own roomate would drive to the mailbox in our apartment complex even though I could literally get the mail faster on foot. It blows people away that I walk to the gym next to my apartment complex. When I tell them that I’ve timed it and it only takes four minutes, they refuse to admit that it’s better than driving and spending 10 minutes to navigate through the complex, the street, and the parking lot only to walk about the same distance from the parking spot.
From what I’ve read and seen in films about early tenements, they were more like small towns. I’m going to guess that what really made the difference was technology - the elevator, the car, the telephone, and air conditioning. Where the inhabitants of the typical lower-rise apartment in the 1930’s or 1950’s would have walked up and down, past other residents, in and out the front door, and walked to the corner market where they see those neighbours - today, you get into a box where you rarely share with any immediate neighbours, ride it down to a quiet deserted underground garage, and drive several miles in quiet solitude (or radio blaring) to any of a dozen large supermarkets.
Using the car and elevator you can buy a week’s worth of groceries, so you are unlikely to bump into your neighbours every day. You sit in your apartment and watch cable, because it’s more comfortable in air conditioning than walking in the 90-degree heat to the park. You drive 50 miles to Six Flags, instead of the local amusement area like Coney island. You go to theatres, shows, bar-hopping by driving to the main restaurant and entertainment district instead of the local theatre or corner bar - all where you are unlikely to meet your immediate neighbours. You drive 20 miles to your job instead of taking the subway; because of cars, a lot of businesses can expect their employees to get to remote worksites instead of having to locate downtown. Modern privacy is a fairly new and recent phenomenon.
(I recall an article that said air conditioning destroyed the social life of the American middle and south. 60 years ago, people used to sit on their porches in the hot days, greet and socialize as neighbours walked by. Now everyone locks themselves inside and enjoys the cool. Having cable that delivers more than a hundred choices, and DVR and DVD, makes this a better choice too.)
I agree. There’s a difference between high-rise density and walk up density. My husband grew up in Manhattan, but not in a high-rise neighborhood. It was a neighborhood of old walk-up buildings, and he knew the neighbors because they walked past each other in the hallways and stairways, sat on the front steps, walked to the same supermarket , laundromat etc. Other technology has a lot to do with it, too. I grew up in a neighborhood of mostly one or two family house in Queens and live in the same sort of neighborhood now, but I knew my neighbors better as a child than I do now. When I grew up, those who had air conditioning used it as little as possible because of the expense, and there was no cable in Queens, so there was nothing on TV in the summer except for network reruns. Everybody sat outside on the stoop in the summer.
But I think there's another factor- mobility. From my earliest memories until I moved out at 24, only one or two families moved off my block. Sure, kids grew up and moved out, but the houses and apartments didn't change hands all that often. Maybe if the owners died or retired and none of their kids wanted the house. Now, the houses on either side of me have been sold three or four times since I moved in 27 years ago, and there's only one other family that's been here since I moved in. I think it's a lot easier to avoid knowing the neighbors when you expect that one of you will be moving out within a few years than it is when you expect to be neighbors for a long time.
I don’t live in a high rise. There’s three units in the building. MOST of Chicago is not high rises or very large apartment buildings, regardless of what movies lead people to believe. Most of us live in single family homes, two or three flats.
Going back to the original OP, I’d add children into the mix.
Public transit is good but can one easily get a baby stroller on it?
Children need safe places to play and quality schools. Here in Kansas City they have done alot to turn around suburban flight and bring people back to living in the downtown area thru the building of lofts and condos. However one thing is they are almost exclusively designed for people without children. Either childless couples or empty nesters. Which the supply of is limited.
The main reason is the poor quality of the public schools plus the parks and public areas are not that safe either.
I really dont see how children grow up in places like New York City where the only place to play is on the streets and sidewalks. I used to live downtown in an apartment but it was a wild place and I wouldnt want to have my kids grow up there.
Those of us who owned our homes had yards, tenants sometimes had use of them and of course there are lots of playgrounds and parks. “Out front” , as we called playing on the sidewalk ,was more fun than our own backyards.