Last week I was saddened to hear that at a city meeting a proposed apartment building was criticized because, among many other reasons, it ostensibly added density to the south Joaquin neighborhood.
The development was rejected — an outcome I favored because it had too much parking and therefore probably didn’t add much density after all — but in the aftermath I felt it’s probably time to revisit this topic. (I’m also speaking generally of anti-density rhetoric I heard about second hand, not of any specific person or comment. My impression was that many people said great things at this meeting as well and I mostly don’t know where specific people fall on this issue anyway.)
So here’s the thing: density is good.
One of the main reasons I started this blog was to argue that adding density would preserve and enhance the character of pioneer neighborhoods — not destroy it — and that it could be done without tearing down actual pioneer homes. Here are some posts I’ve written in the past as I’ve researched that thesis:
One of the few communal gardens in Provo… and it also happens to be next to a pocket of high-ish (or more accurately medium) density housing. That’s not a coincidence, it’s a necessity.
Jane Jacobs and Density 101
Density Without Destruction
Community Gardens Require Density
More People Means Less Traffic
Building Cities for Trick-or-Treating
Mo’ People Mo’ Money
Why Density Matters
The Way To Get More Retail Downtown
Dense Cities Will Save America
What Houses Close Together Look Like
Let me be clear: I support much higher density everywhere in Provo. I think adding density to the Joaquin neighborhood above 500 North — which I’ve been told is the plan — is great for example, but relatively inconsequential due to the demographics and size of that area.
Instead, I’m in favor of adding density in Joaquin below 500 North, in other Pioneer neighborhoods, and elsewhere. These areas are proximate to downtown, already somewhat denser than other neighborhoods, and have thousands of acres of wasted space that could be developed into higher density housing.
This is one way to increase density: putting awesome homes with shallow setbacks really close together.
It’s also worth mentioning that “density” is not synonymous with Manhattan or Chicago; we don’t have to demolish everything and put up glass towers — though a few wouldn’t hurt so people who prefer that option could actually live in Provo. Density can be increased with low-rise multi-unit buildings (generally my preferred option), single family infill, alley homes, accessory apartments, etc. Pocket neighborhoods are explicitly a density-increasing strategy; if you like them, you like increasing density.
It has been my assumption that most people who oppose density are really opposing bad design. Most examples of medium or high “density” in Provo are horrible apartment complexes surrounded by terrible parking lots. In many cases these examples aren’t really dense; a student fourplex surrounded by eight or more parking spots might seem dense, but a few row houses with less parking may actually be denser, while also being more attractive and livable for families.
This site includes several apartment complexes. But it’s also poorly designed. The apartments are also so spread out by parking that this isn’t actually high density; rather it’s pretty low density. Low density and bad design are both problems that need solving in Provo right now.
In any case, I join with critics of bad design; we should demand livable spaces for our cities and not tolerate crap. There was a fair amount of crap in the recent proposal for the Joaquin neighborhood — mostly in the form of the parking lot — and so it was rightly rejected.
But I’m not going to mince words here: if you truly oppose density you’re wrong. As I’ve argued over and over and over again on this blog, density leads to increased safety, more downtown retail, better restaurants, more diversity, more walkability, and even more green space. It reduces the strain on government and increases efficiency. When density and good design converge — think Paris, Rome or even Rio de Janeiro — the experience is viscerally, almost ineffably, pleasurable. The reason we don’t have these kinds of spaces in Provo isn’t because they can’t exist, it’s because we continue to make well-intentioned but very poor decisions — often about density — about our city.
As I wrote above, I favor adding density all over Provo. I oppose plans to unilaterally prevent density increases in south Joaquin or anywhere else for that matter. And I fundamentally believe that more people should have the opportunity to enjoy the city’s big trees, old architecture, walkable infrastructure and burgeoning cultural scene.
In the end, if Provo resists adding density it’ll lose a lot of interesting people who currently see in it more potential than perfection.