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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Higher densities not necessarily the answer to our sustainability questions

When one thinks of sprawl the first thought that comes to mind is the spread out, low-density suburbs that have eaten away at our nation's fertile farmland and natural environment. An immediate reaction is that density is in fact better, but is this so?

There is an assumption made that density would somehow reduce the amount of land needed for sprawling suburbs, and that greater amounts of land can be preserved. This is true in theory, but does not always happen once the market has its way. Furthermore, preserved land is not the same land it once was; meaning that the preserved "greenway" connecting your neighborhood to another community feature may or may not be beneficial to the natural systems that exist. Does it serve as a corridor for wildlife, is it farmable or is the preserved land serving any significant purpose outside of additional trees that are reducing the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere? Most likely not.

What has happened in Atlanta is something that should be learned from. Atlanta is arguably the king of sprawl in modern day America, but some might say, well Fulton County has a higher population density than does Hamilton County. Similar arguments can be applied to other less urban regions than Cincinnati. The fact is that Fulton County is just about built out with the exception of some land in the far southern reaches of the county. Furthermore, this built-out county has extraordinarily dense suburban areas including the central Perimeter area which includes 30 story office towers, residential towers and 12 lane highway systems to boot. The traffic is abysmal like much of the rest of Atlanta and the problem is only going to get worse.

Midtown, Buckhead and Perimeter skylines in Atlanta - photo from mattsal88 on ImageShack

The reason is a combination of densities and form. The suburban areas of Atlanta, and even much of the urban areas, are almost entirely car-dependent. So a low-density suburban area that is car-dependent is one thing, but a high-density area of the same makeup is nightmarish. The "spatial mismatch" is exacerbated to a degree seen nowhere else in America than Atlanta and Los Angeles (Los Angeles County is the most populated county in the country at 9+ million). The people living in one area are working in another creating a spatial mismatch that is exacerbated by the high densities. They are not walking, biking or taking transit to a level enough that would offset its densities.

When you hear of the next "new urbanist" neighborhood on the fringes of a metropolitan area, or the next lifestyle center that pitches itself as being the next best thing to an authentic urban shopping experience, be wary. These are not real communities where store owners live in addition to running their business. The residents are most likely hopping in their car that is parked nicely within one of their two (or more) dedicated parking spaces and driving into the center city for work.

Higher densities in our suburban areas are not the answers to our sprawl issues. A correction of the spatial mismatch is what's needed to truly create a sustainable metropolitan area. Natural systems need to be preserved in their truest form and our most fertile food-producing regions need to be maintained for their highest and best use. Higher densities in the core with high density satellite neighborhoods connected by high-quality transit options are the best possible solutions.


BKeller said...

Tyson's Corner, VA in suburban DC is another example of the problems with suburbs becoming dense while only being geared towards cars.

But, because of forward thinkers in the transit community, Metro is building their new subway line through the area and planners are talking about destroying even new developments in favor of a more urban/transit/pedestrian friendly design.

neighbortom said...

I think that you may be focussing on the overall density of an area rather than the neighborhood density and mix of uses required to support services. Atlanta is full of dense spots that are zoned monolithically (ALL office, ALL retail, ALL residential), but the overarching development pattern is low density sprawl. That is inherently unwalkable, and without reasonable mass transit options, you are left only with the option of driving. I can’t think of any examples of the walkable neighborhoods that you and I both seem to like that are not at least somewhat mixed use, and quite dense (relative to the 1/acre typical suburban sprawl). New Urbanism pushes the concept of mixed use, AND density, as a driver of sufficient population to support that. There is nothing new about it – it’s the same paradigm that supports all of the old neighborhoods that we inherently find walkable and worthy.

The problem is in development patterns. As you point out, dense development at the suburban fringe don’t have the scale to be ‘real’. Then again, neither did most of the cool neighborhoods when they were developed. You used to have to ‘take the trolley into town’ from Grant Park to shop for groceries, too, in the 1890’s…

Which is not to say that we disagree... I just would say that desnity IS beneficial, particularly in the context of mixed uses and internodal transit...
48 minutes ago · Delete

Randy Simes said...


I agree with what you're saying. The message I am trying to convey is that high densities alone don't necessarily equate to sustainable communities. Many high-density developments offer the mixture of uses for it to conceivably be a sustainable community, but the reality is often quite different with people living there going elsewhere to work and shop, while those that work or shop there don't also live in that location.

Patrick McMahon said...

You're correct in saying that density alone isn't sufficient. Density needs to be paired with the other 3 Ds, good urban design, a diversity of uses, and high quality links to regional destinations.

There's plenty of dense suburban condo housing right now that doesn't have pedestrian, bike, or transit friendly design, doesn't have a mix of uses, and is isolated from other locations.

But, well done density, even in suburban areas, can and does reduce the number of auto trips. Daniel Rodriguez and others at UNC's Carolina Transportation Program (and dozens outside of Chapel Hill) have evaluated the travel patterns of new urbanist developments.

ATL said...

Well said... It may be interesting to note however that even here in Atlanta, the area you describe as the penultimate example of sprawl-- new zoning requiring a true mix of uses is the norm and no longer the exception… increasingly areas were walking or biking are possible are being built or retrofitted…

Unknown said...

I am going to have to disagree with you slightly here. I do agree that density alone in suburbia is not the best answer to our problems—but, you have to remember that people are going to live somewhere, and isn’t it better for people to live in existing areas than in new Greenfield developments? Some people just refuse to live in downtown areas (I think many are scared of one-way streets). I agree that most people are probably going to drive everywhere IF it’s single use zoning, but, most suburban places have roads that are way overbuilt. And traffic jams probably only happen for about 30 minutes a day in most suburban areas. That means for the remaining 9,930 minutes of the week the capacity is probably under-utilized. If you’re building infill, that probably means that people are going to be driving shorter distances to their jobs.

I’ve walked around the Buckhead area in Atlanta before and you’re right, there’s bad traffic. But that’s because there are huge arterials and not enough narrow, connected streets. There are a few MARTA stations within walking distance, but the infrastructure to get there is quite daunting. There are several shopping places, grocery stores, restaurants, and a mall that people can walk to, but the design is a big deterrent. That’s why as someone mentioned above the other Ds are important (btw, there are now 8Ds that Jerry Walters and others are using in modeling). The same problem plagues LA. LA could easily be one of the most walkable cities in America if it didn’t use suburban street standards. It is by far one of the most dense cities in America (more than any large Ohio city), but its street standards are atrocious and not at all conducive to walking, biking, and transit (which they easily have one of the best systems in the country).

I am moving from the core of Sacramento and one of the most walkable neighborhoods in the country (Midtown) to a new urbanist village in suburbia. While we can’t walk to all of the same things that we currently enjoy (including my job), our household VMT will possibly decrease because my fiancé can walk to work, and I will be able to take the train to work. We also get a brand-new urban-style townhouse that will cost us $140,000 less than a similar place in our current neighborhood. There are many people that do walk or bike to work from this village, as the area it’s located in has just as many jobs as the urban core (albeit suburban office parks with huge surface parking lots). You have to remember that not all the job centers are located in urban cores. So, there can be benefits to those suburban new urbanist villages, though they’re not perfect! Lifestyle centers? Not so much.

Randy Simes said...


Thanks for the comments, but I want to make sure that we're clear that I am not opposed to higher densities or infill projects (actually infill projects are terrific). Instead I am cautioning against the across-the-board logic that higher densities always equate to more sustainable communities.

Sure Atlanta is plagued by a poor street network and design, but the minimal MARTA service doesn't come close to providing the service necessary for the densities that exist on Atlanta's north side. I'm assuming this same logic can be applied to LA although I have not been there and can not speak from personal experience.

High-density living environments are great and provide economic, social and environmental benefits...but they must be done right in order to acheive such benefits. If not they can make the situation worse as has been seen in places like Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Once again I'm not opposed to higher fact I'm in favor of them, but they must be done right and the greenfield developments or the booming bedroom communities on the urban frings that are masquerading as sustainable living choices aren't the answer.

We need to be thinking comprehensively about neighborhood design and how these high-density developments fit into our larger regions. Connect them with quality transit options, create diverse living options and develop a street network that is connected and designed with more than the automobile in mind. These are a few ways in which we could improve, but we need to start realizing that density alone isn't the is much, much more than that.

Unknown said...

Yep, agreed. That's why the Ds are so important. It really doesn't matter where something is located as long as it satisfies the Ds well. I didn't mean to make it sound like you weren't supporting density either.

I used to live in Dayton and came down to Cincy on occasion. It's got some great neighborhoods. Glad to see there's someone dedicated to covering them online!

Jarrett at said...

You're right about the problems of dense sprawl. People have been building towers next to freeways for twenty years now, and it's never done anything but increase congestion and car dependence.

But your slur against New Urbanism is ignorant and unjustified, as there's nothing New Urbanist about the kind of development you're describing.

New Urbanism is first and foremost about creating pedestrian-friendly urban textures, at all density scales, that enable people to do things without cars. This is the "design" side of the "Density+Design" mantra.

There is also no shortage of New Urbanist critiques of Atlanta in particular. See For example James Howard Kunstler here:

Randy Simes said...


My comment about new urbanism was critiquing the many fringe developments that claim to a "lifestyle community" or "new urbanist development" just because they might meet a few of the new urbanist principles generally.

I said to be "wary" of such developments if you're looking for a truly sustainable neighborhood, because the use of "new urbanist," "lifestyle center," and/or "master planned community" has been overused to the point of meanings of those terms being dulled. It's kind of like 'greenwashing' for planning.

If you still feel like I have been unfair, "unjust" or "ignorant" towards new urbanism then that's fair...but just understand the distinction of my argument. My words were chosen carefully as this can be a difficult and very gray issue.

Native Austinite said...

Thank goodness someone said it. Folks, density means that no cars are present and that people can walk to take care of their needs. If the "density" requires one to drive all the time, it doesn't promote health, community, or sustainable business practices. One pet peeve of mine is huge grocery stores in the middle of neighborhoods instead of small ones dispersed throughout the space. "But everyone can go, and you just get in your car -" Phrases like that assume that 1) everyone has and can afford a car; and 2) everyone would prefer to go to the store that way.

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