What’s Missing In the Urban Density Debate

The discussions and debates around building more walkable and bikeable cities invariably come back to issues of urban density. There are many competing theories as to how many people can or should live in compact, efficient living quarters.

Just about everyone who studies cities agrees decentralized rings of suburbs are a waste of time, energy, and social connection. Yet more are realizing the vertically gated communities found inside glass & concrete condos can be equally damaging.

To break it down, most arguments for density make sense: driving long distances is exacerbating our climate crisis while creating congestion nightmares as populations urbanize faster than ever. The downside, though, is while the housing crash of 2008 halted our sprawl addiction, the fallout means watching humble apartments get flipped into expensive luxury units.

Frustratingly, educated urbanists who understand the right reasons for promoting density have been recruited by the real estate market to make thier case for sky-rocking rent. While we’re arguing for density, we’ve forgotten who it is we’re building density for.

They say the greenest building is the one you never build. This is true. We save far more energy preserving, or renovating existing structures than we do smothering the old with the modern.

Look at the modest, human-scaled apartments built in early 1900’s Chicago and Detroit and you’ll find all the density needed for walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented communities that working and middle class families could both enjoy.

While most of these structures were only two or three stories tall, just about everyone still took some form of transit. Why then is there this absurd fixation on ‘density’ at any and all heights?

The argument is that in order to get people out of their cars and onto a bus or streetcar, you must have more density. On some level this is true, but not to the degree we’ve been lead to believe. New York City has the highest density in America while still being choked full of single occupancy vehicles and taxis.

The tale of the two-flat

Why does the argument for high-rise density persist then? Is it that greed is the fundamental driving force in all real estate?

It’s not that developers couldn’t still make money building two-flat apartments. It’s that they might not make the most profit possible, thereby deeming it “not economically viable“. Of course, unaffordable condos aren’t economically viable for the working class, but that fact is usually left out of the debate. And when it comes to even defining affordability, we see another gap in understanding.

As with gentrification, many privileged voices pretend the word can be bent to mean different things. They’ll talk about low-income and public housing being converted into so-called ‘market-rate housing’ as though it were a force that lifted all boats; that as the cost of housing goes up, so too must the living conditions of residents.

It’s easy to see how those paid to push this narrative begin to believe their own fantasy.

To understand properly, ‘market rate’ in housing is a term more ill-defined than any. In real estate, supply and demand is speculative. The going market rate is simply another way of saying, “The most we can possibly get away with.

Affordable housing, on the other hand, is easily definable – but the density developers will deny this.

They will claim ‘affordable’ is anything less than 90% of ‘market rate’. Since we’ve established market housing could be any price at all, their definition of ‘affordable’ could likewise float up anywhere. Mark it up to mark it down, as they say in retail.

No, the true definition of affordable housing is no more than 30% of a renter’s income. This is the standard by which social aid workers and the federal government operate. You cannot live comfortably, anywhere, when you’re paying more than a third of your income on rent.

Let’s remember that as we continue to push for more connected, more sustainable cities. If we make them unaffordable to all but the salaried classes, then the workers who mop your cafe floors and empty your office trash will be priced out farther from the city center. They’ll become more car-dependent and their carbon footprints will grow, along with the every day lived-hardships of struggling against low wages.

If we’re to have density, it must be a gentle density for all. There are other, more affordable, more diverse building options to ensure we all have a place to live on the urban landscape. Let’s make sure we’re not ignoring what’s proven to work well.

Thumbnail: Eric Allix Rogers