Here We Go Again

Density is good. That’s the message from Ryan Avent, a writer for The Economist, whose new ebook, The Gated City, received a boost from a promotional op ed in the New York Times.

Density, according to Avent, makes people wealthier, happier, and more productive. The data he uses to support these ideas, however, are suspect. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to grasp the distinction between metropolitan area and urbanized area. He understands that metropolitan area is the wrong measure of an urban area’s density, so he uses a weighted-average density of census tracts in a metropolitan area. A metropolitan area such as San Jose, whose urban area density is the third-densest in the nation, ends up appearing less dense than New York, whose urban area is considerably less dense but which has a high density core.

To support his idea that density is good, Avent points out that average incomes in the San Francisco Bay Area are very high. But he doesn’t realize that this isn’t true because people in the Bay Area are more productive; it is because the cost of density is so great that low-income people have been forced out.

Avent blames this cost on slow-growth policies that make housing costs high, and he is partly right about that, but he fails to understand that smart-growth policies aimed at increasing density are almost as bad. More important, Avent greatly overestimates the benefits of density. He assumes that regions could become denser without increasing the cost of housing, offices, factories, and other uses, and that the advantages of proximity would outweigh any disadvantages from congestion.

In the age of the Internet, automobile, and cell phone, the advantages of proximity are greatly exaggerated. Meanwhile, the disadvantages of density–congestion and high land costs–greatly outweigh what limited proximity advantages remain.

Didn’t we read this book already? Only last time it was called The Triumph of the City and it was written by Edward Glaeser, a fine economist whose view of cities is slightly shaded by the fact that he grew up in Manhattan. Avent’s bio doesn’t say whether he grew up in New York, but he did go to school in London and currently lives in Washington. I can’t help but feel he is another city boy who loves cities so much he wants to impose them on everyone else.

The Antiplanner would never step into another city again if I didn’t have to as a part of my work. But I don’t think everyone would be better off living my lifestyle; I just think people ought to have a choice. Avent’s book simply stimulates the smart-growth advocates who want to impose all sorts of policies on urbanites and suburbanites to force them to live in denser communities.

I’d say more but I am on a deadline and my faithful ally Wendell Cox has already engaged Avent in a running debate on the density issue. I’ll just conclude by saying that there is an important distinction between slow growth and smart growth: one seeks to keep densities low and the other seeks to increase them. But both make housing and other costs higher and neither should be tolerated by people concerned about property rights, congestion, and urban productivity.

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9 thoughts on “Here We Go Again

  1. LazyReader

    He who loves the city live on their own accord. Jane Jacobs was an advocate for density, mixed use but took strides to oppose urban renewal, yet her attempts to revitalize blighted urban areas, the factors that she argued for instead led to gentrification of what is now some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Irony is the gentrifiers often resemble the populace who earlier abandoned the city in the post war years. Ironically her attempts to draw people back into the city did succeed, drawing thousands and thousands of affluent residents back into the inner city, oops. She advocated the preservation of older buildings (sure we all want to protect historic stuff) specifically because their lack of economic value made them affordable for poor people. Unfortunately, affluent people recognized the aesthetic value of the buildings too. You know what a brownstone even in Brooklyn or Harlem can go for these days. Her ideas have been criticized for not addressing problems of scale, or explaining how infrastructure should be built. Infrastructure is really really expensive in a city, especially when you have to tear the streets up to build new pipes and wires without disturbing existing ones all for the demands to address new residents let alone the ultimate end where it all has to be completely replaced. Existing lines may still be in use and the inconvenience of power or water loss of thousands of customers.

  2. palvar

    Did you even read the book? He argues for relaxing regulations to let owners decide what to do with their property. If people prefer less dense areas, that is what will be built. Following Ryan’s suggestion could lead to you being proven right.

    How can a conservative like yourself fight liberty and property rights? You are a coward.

  3. bennett

    “Density is good… Density, according to Avent, makes people wealthier, happier, and more productive.”

    I’m not sure if it is Avent or Mr. O’Toole that is using the word “density” this way, but lets put it to rest. Density is everywhere in the built environment, and the majority of it is lower density than what can be seen in NYC. The word “density” does not mean high density.

  4. bennett

    palvar says: “He argues for relaxing regulations to let owners decide what to do with their property.”

    I’m not sure how long you’ve been reading this blog but equating Euclidean zoning as the direct result of market choices of free individuals should be expected. Also, when Euclidean zoning is lifted allowing for more dense and more intense developments, the sentiment that “this is just government intervention shoving higher densities down our throat,” is about par for the course.

  5. Streetcarsuburb

    The antiplanner can’t make up his mind, he advocates against government regulation, and along comes a book advocating loosening up regulations, and the antiplanner is still not satisfied. Why? Because the loosening of land use regulations, in the cases cited in the book, results in higher densities, and the antiplanner thinks that Americans have to use up every last square foot of open space for coockie cutter, McMansion single family, auto dependent development.

  6. Tombdragon

    Sorry Streetcar you just don’t get it – Density – if it is demanded by the Market is fine – what the Anti-Planner, and I am against, is the government demanding and compelling us to add density to meet their utopian vision of planning nirvana. If I want to have a 3,200 sq ft house on my 5,000 square ft lot fine, or if as a developer I want to develop my property for high density – WITHOUT government subsidies. Planning should exist to accommodate demand for roads, and infrastructure, not the other way around – it is restrictive, and counter productive for the private sector to have to build housing, and density without meeting the demands of the private sector.

  7. Streetcarsuburb

    I don’t think you get it.

    Density demanded by the market without regulation can be deadly. It’s why planning exists, the “city beautiful” movement and the reformers began land use regulation and other government regulations such as housing codes to counter the negative impacts of the free market in the early 20th Century.

    There are incompatable land uses, and land use regulations actually conserve housing and land values by keeping these undesirable uses out of neigborhoods. Government regulation has created wealth, much of it locked away in the equity of the homeowner.

    You cannot plan transportaion in a vacuum, and land is not a unlimited resource.

    Transportation and land use go hand in hand.

    The government in the USA has been creating demand for real estate since day one, which resulted in settlement and densities, when our government began to build and/or subsidize transportation:

    Canal building,
    Bridge building,
    Railroad subsidies,
    Streetcar building and subsidies (which led to the first suburbs)
    And Eisenhower’s Interstate system (which led to the auto only suburbs).

    All these things that government was responsible for helped create densities, villages, settlements, and cities since the founding of the USA.

    You think that “densities” were created organically in a vacuum without government subsidy or interference?

    I think you need to do more research about the relatinship between transportation and land use densities.

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