The Virtue of Density

By Jason Leach
Published February 28, 2005

This op-ed appeared originally in the Boston Globe, but is well worth reading.

The article highlights a balanced approach to urban intensification and smart growth. In Hamilton, we are constantly told by home builders and self-proclaimed experts that increasing densities will erode our quality of life and result in a city full of 50 storey buildings.

That is simply not true and this article should be a must-read by our local politicians and developers. A balanced, sensible approach is all that many of us are asking for. We don't want to be Manhattan-north, but neither do we want to be Buffalo-north. And we're much closer to becoming the latter if we continue in the manner that we have been.

The Virtue of Density

By David Dixon

The Boston Globe
July 7, 2003
Page A13
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

"DENSITY" IS a tough word. It conjures up contradictory, equally disagreeable, images of crowded tenements and isolated towers. Yet freed of poverty and poor design, density means chatting with neighbors on a South End stoop, shopping for pastries in the North End or international fashion along Newbury Street, walking to a movie in the Fenway and to work in the Financial District or Back Bay, and riding the new Silver Line to Chinatown.

In fact, our fear and loathing of density is ironic, counter-productive, dangerous - and based largely on myths.

Why ironic? Boston's most expensive neighborhoods are its densest, a pattern repeated in many cities. Which places do Bostonians speak of with real affection? Charles Street in Beacon Hill, Central Square in Cambridge, Roslindale Square, and others within walking distance of the density required to support active street life. This pattern repeats itself across the United States - from Greenwich Village in New York to newer developments like Santana Row in San Jose.

Why counter-productive? Density is essential to achieving the very qualities that make communities more livable - and cohesive. Neighborhoods in cities like Boston have lost as much as 50 percent of their pre-1950 population, which in turn supported the lively commercial districts with a sense of community that people seek to recapture.

Worse, in an era of big-box retail and Internet shopping, it takes more people living within walking distance to support lively streets in 2003 than it did in 1950. A recent study our office conducted for eastern Cambridge revealed that 1,500 to 2,000 units of new housing, within a 10-15 minute walk, were required to support creation of one block of Main Street.

Why dangerous? Avoiding density creates sprawl and in the process generates congestion; encourages social fragmentation by income, race, and age; and depletes Main Street. Because average household size has shrunk by roughly one-quarter since 1970 it takes more housing to return neighborhoods to their earlier population levels.

The Boston region pays an increasingly steep price for escalating sprawl; as we have scattered new jobs, housing, and shopping during the past 30 years rather than focusing growth where we already live, total miles driven have increased 15 times faster than population growth and the income gap between outer suburbs and core cities has steadily widened.

We need to reclaim density as a solution to, not the cause of, problems facing our cities and suburbs. So why do people fear, if not loathe, density? Blame some enduring myths:

Density depletes open space. Parks and development shouldn't and don't compete. I have never seen a park redeveloped as housing. In fact, development pays for parks that the public sector can no longer afford and ongoing sprawl consumes large amounts of open space.

Density is ugly. There are many examples of large, insensitively designed buildings that mar charming neighborhoods. The problem is poor design, not density. Often criticized buildings such as Rindge Towers in Cambridge or Tremont on the Common in Boston are less dense than much admired new housing in the historic South End.

Density hurts property values. Density doesn't hurt property values. New investment in a neighborhood almost always raises them - witness higher density housing along Washington Street. Density causes gentrification. Just the opposite. The failure to produce enough housing is pushing up prices and forcing dislocation. The solution is to build more housing and incorporate affordability, not avoid building. Mayor Menino's Boston Housing Strategy noted that over the 1990s this region produced roughly half of the 15,000 new housing units required annually to avoid steep housing inflation.

Density causes traffic congestion. Dispersed development - at densities too low to support transit - requires multiple car trips as part of daily life and causes congestion. Blame the 35 million square feet of office space built in the suburbs, not the 9 million built in the regional core over the 1990s for increased congestion. The answer is building transit - projects like the Urban Ring - and managing traffic.

Density doesn't work in a car-dominated world. National surveys report that Americans resent lengthening daily commutes. Highly desirable neighborhoods in Boston and Cambridge boast some of America's highest walk-to-work ratios. Ask national retailers which store locations perform best these days; the answer is Main Streets, not malls. Residents in Boston's densest new housing - for example lofts along Washington Street - can park downstairs from where they live.

Recently the Globe's architecture critic, Robert Campbell, informed us that Paris is four times as dense as Boston - and few people are complaining. The next day the Globe reported that "developed" land in Massachusetts has increased by 50 percent over the 1980s and '90s, and other newspapers reported that tree cover in the Washington, D.C., region had decreased by more than a quarter in the past 20 years. Which of these futures do we want?

We can no longer afford to ignore this question. We need a new American dream, and density needs to be part of it.

David Dixon is president of the Boston Society of Architects and a principal at Goody, Clancy & Associates.

Jason Leach was born and raised in the Hammer and currently lives downtown with his wife and children. You can follow him on twitter.


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