The Benefits and Limits of Density

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know that “density” — or the number of people occupying a section of land — is an important idea here. The general consensus today is that some amount of high density is a good thing because spurs innovation, creativity, and economic vitality, among other things. Think of cities like New York, Paris or San Francisco, and you get the idea. This view, which stands in stark contrast to low-density suburban style living, was advocated by Jane Jacobs among many other experts.

Richard Florida, however, argued Wednesday that we need to be smart about density. Florida’s main point is that building a bunch of super towers and skyscrapers can be a mistake because they kill the kind of vibrant street life that thrives in medium and low-rise neighborhoods:

“Yes, we do need more compact, walkable higher density communities,” writes McMahon. “But no we do not need to build thousands of look-a-like glass and steel skyscrapers to accomplish the goals of smart growth or sustainable development.” Neighborhoods like Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Brooklyn’s Park Slope, and the Fan in Richmond were largely built before the age of elevators and they are all dense. New Orleans’ “French Quarter has a net density of 38 units per acre, Georgetown 22 units per acre.” The real issue isn’t just height and the massing of people and work, but of enabling interaction and recombination.

Provo, however, isn’t really struggling with too many skyscrapers. Consequently, the lesson for the Wasatch Front is that smart increases in density are important because they will allow cities to live up to their potential. Of that potential, Florida writes,

The key function of a city is to enable exchange, interaction, and the combination and recombination of people and ideas.

After generations of conditioning to associate the American Dream with the suburbs, as well as a proliferation of poorly-constructed apartments, it’s no wonder many people shun high density housing.

But no neighborhoods in Provo are as dense as those citied in Florida’s article. Many Provo neighborhoods have no street life to speak of.

As a result, Provo still needs much denser neighborhoods throughout the city if it wants to spur innovation and sustain long term growth. The real tragedy, in the context of Florida’s article, would be if we fail to increase density intelligently now and consequently end up with a bunch of generic towers several generations in the future. Such an outcome would skip the levels of density that Florida and other experts seem to hint is a sweet spot.

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