Density Doesn’t Come Naturally in Modern America

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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  1. Avatar LeeEsq
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    Density doesn’t come naturally because America has the space and wealth to spread. You see similar things in other low-density wealth countries like Canada or Australia. Its just that American land use policy takes low density development to its natural limits.Report

  2. Avatar morat20
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    Houston’s density might also have been — and this is pure speculation — partly fueled by Tom Delay’s unholy hatred for public transportation. That guy spent two decades sandbagging any attempt (and he had a LOT of tools to do it with) to beef up Houston public transportation, even as Houston was dying from traffic problems.

    It’s probably coincidental that the inner loop area started becoming more dense and attracting folks about a decade after Tom got the boot and Houston was finally able to make baby-steps towards public transit (we’ve always had buses, and the light rail system is still in the ‘connect up downtown areas’ stage).

    Still, I can’t help but think Delay’s dogged insistence (seriously, it was like a crusade with him. I’m not kidding or exaggerating. He didn’t care about it anywhere else, but a whiff of Houston public transit got the hammer brought down) at least had an impact on Houston’s growth for his time in office.

    Lord knows the traffic was already horrible from sprawl even thirty years ago.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to morat20
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      I have never seen sprawl like Houston. Southern California has sprawl that goes from the Mexican border to God knows where north of L.A., but it still looks compact relative to Houston.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Chris
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        It’s all flat land here. Which is awesome, until the hurricane hits. Of course, there’s all the mosquitoes. And the roaches fly.

        Anyways, I’ve been shocked to see Houston starting to get denser in the inner loop (and deeply amused as the first waves of folks started screaming about where proposed light rail lines would go. They want them close by, but not down their street! Are you crazy?).

        But honestly, even the densest people in Houston realized the sprawl problem was out of control by the early 90s. Tom Delay just prevented anyone from doing anything about it, even though he represented Sugarland (which wasn’t part of Metro, which was what he spent a decade happily punching by playing ‘I’ll cut your federal funding if you do anything I dislike’).Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris
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        Yeah, Austin’s public transportation situation has been primarily been determined by its suburbs as well.

        Hell, we have a rail line that nobody in the city needs because Williamson County politicians managed to strong arm the city into putting rail there without Williamson County having to pay for it.

        As for Houston’s sprawl, I still love the map that shows how much space large a space you’d need to contain the entire world’s population at the densities of various cities. Houston’s basically takes up the whole country.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to morat20
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      Tom Delay’s role in preventing Houston from developing public transportation is probably negligeble. American cities neglected transit from the mid-20th century to the late 1990s because everybody had car fever. American conservatives also had a real cultural instinct against public transportation and city like density that still rings true today. Thats why conservative hacks were able to turn a meaningless UN protocol in massive conspiracy to destroy single-family homes and take away cars.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to LeeEsq
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        Tom Delay’s role in preventing Houston from developing public transportation is probably negligeble.

        This is objectively untrue. He and other state Republicans actually had a pretty significant impact on public transportation in Austin, as well (see, e.g., the 2000 light rail vote, which was moved up by the state legislature to make it more difficult to pass, and into which state and national Republicans poured a huge amount of money).

        In order to understand the public transportation debate in Texas, you have to understand how transportation initiatives are funded here. If you think that Delay and other Republicans have had a ‘negligible” role in preventing transportation development in major cities here, then you definitely don’t understand that.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to LeeEsq
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        Yeah, no. You’re wrong on that one. It’s long, and complex, and has to do with federal matches for local funding and the ability of the old earmarks system, and Tom Delay’s ridiculous mind control powers over the House, but Houston spent two decades trying to expand Metro — to at the very least keep up with the population and keep it serviceable, and multiple tries at replacing park-and-ride with rail lines or other systems…

        And Tom Delay used his power and position to single-handedly kill it. I’m talking everything from lobbying against referendums to explicitly barring ANY federal funds from being used for projects that the Houston voters had actually approved — a ban that existed nowhere else, and basically screwed Houston. There was a period there, before Delay got the boot, where Houston passed several referendums on expanding mass transit only to have Tom Delay use his control over federal funds and earmarks (which was ridiculously amounts of control) to screw Metro and Houston if they proceeded with the voter-approved transit systems.Report

  3. Avatar zic
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    Do you know about Smart Growth? It’s a program (a set of planning guidelines,) on how to minimize sprawl. It includes guidelines on density and urban planning, regional cooperation, and protecting open space and farmlands.

    Here’s a study of smart-growth policies by state. http://gov.uchastings.edu/public-law/docs/smartgrowth.pdf

    This document goes through the policies of each state; and while AZ seems to be the red-state outlier here, most of the states who’ve done work to develop smart-growth policies seem rather blue.

    Housing is a market, one that investors hope to profit from handsomly. I’ve never met a private developer who want to develop excess housing so that costs go down; the only people with a mission to develop below market-rate housing work for non-profits funded by Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from HUD. There are restrictions to this kind of development that could and should be examined (a bedroom for each child, for instance) to promote density; but any benefits there are at the margins.

    But some imaginary conservative impulse to avoid planning regulation and urban planning in general doesn’t provide affordable housing in dense neighborhoods, either.Report

    • Avatar j r in reply to zic
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      But some imaginary conservative impulse to avoid planning regulation and urban planning in general doesn’t provide affordable housing in dense neighborhoods, either.

      Sure. At the same time, some imaginary progressive belief in the efficacy of regulation and urban planning doesn’t do much for us either. Of course, I tend to believe that most reasonable people don’t have magical beliefs and imaginary impulses and that they base their world view on some foundation of individual preference and rational thought. So perhaps its best to stick to talking about specific policies and proposals instead of trying to win some ideological battle.

      It is definitely true that private, for-profit real estate developers have a taste for developing so-called luxury units (where luxury tends to be used to describe anything that is clean and has an elevator). Part of the reason is that they want to maximize their profits, but part of it is that the regulatory hurdles that developers have to jump through to build anything make it uneconomical to build anything at the lower or even middle price points.

      Long story short: let’s stop pretending that urban real estate and housing markets (even the market rate sectors) are anything approximating a free market. These markets tend to have very little to do with ideological preference and everything to do with old-school, factional, municipal politics.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to j r
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        Given that the denser development gets, the more externalities it creates (both positive and negative), I’m not even sure what a free market version of dense development would be. Should I be allowed to put up a skyscraper, even if it blocks my neighbor’s sun? What is appropriate compensation for him, and what are his options if there’s a dispute about what’s appropriate? What about the positive externalities of a larger customer base for local businesses, or the potential impact on housing affordability? What about demographic change in the neighborhood? What if the new skyscraper is hideous architecturally and extremely ugly? What if half the neighborhood loves the look of the new skyscraper and the other half hates it?

        This isn’t to downplay the importance of new dense building in creating affordable housing, and I’m all about allowing more new construction. But there is no “free market” option when you’re talking about development in a dense urban area. Literally any decision you make will be a product of politics; it’s just a question of what values we want to emphasize and whose interests we want to serve.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to j r
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        @dan-miller I question the whole notion that denser development = more affordable housing.

        Denser development happens in places where there’s already demand for housing at higher prices. You put up a sky scraper not to create low-end housing, but high end; bright-shiny new premium properties. The supposed gain in lower-cost housing would come when people in that housing relocate to the new, driving their previous housing costs lower. That only happens if there’s a shortage of housing consumers and developers/land lords have to compete for them on price.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to j r
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        Good, old-school factional politics results in some sort of policy. It can be a policy of hands off, of nimby no-change in the neighborhood, or one that requires a balance of housing price points or anything in between.

        But developers develop in an environment of existing regulation and code. That is how the system works. The old-school factional politics is the method we use to create that regulatory framework in any given community.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to j r
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        Density should alleviate housing costs (where there is any scarcity of land) simply on the basis of supply and demand. That it tends to occur in expensive places is indicative of it being the development of last resort, after outward expansion options have been exhausted, and that we are still not doing enough of it in land-restricted places (though “enough” may not be possible to bring costs in line with places without land scarcity.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to j r
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        Austin is an example of how density does not necessarily reduce costs due to supply and demand, or at least they don’t lead to a reduction in costs across the market. In Austin, developments have been heavily skewed toward high-end homes, which has meant that across the price spectrum, prices have gone up even as supply increases, because the supply increases are primarily at above a certain price point. It’s possible that luxury condos are cheaper in Austin than they would be because the supply has increased, but as they build more and more of those, pretty dramatically increasing density, the cost of everything priced below those continues to go up.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to j r
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        @chris What would have happened to housing prices in Austin without the construction? And what would have happened to housing prices in the suburbs?Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to j r
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        @will-truman can you name any places where this has happened?

        What I see, instead, is a supply/demand based on economic opportunity. If there is opportunity, an area attracts people, and that drives cost up and puts pressure on to increase density; it may slow the rate of the increase, but it does not ever seem to put downward pressure on housing costs.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to j r
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        @zic Here’s one exampleReport

      • Avatar Chris in reply to j r
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        Dan, it’s hard to say. It could have gone either way: increased supply across the spectrum would obviously have lowered prices. A lack of development would obvioulsly have meant a rise (though perhaps not as steep: Autsin’s housing costs have gone up dramatically in part because the expensive developments are raising property values throughout all of the little pockets of density).Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to j r
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        Due to the degree of investment involve, development is usually going to be behind the curve, and so the result is going to be lower increases than you would otherwise see in growing places, rather than lower prices from one year to the next. It’s hard to have an oversupply in a rapidly growing area.Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to zic
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      @dan-miller this might be, but I’m somewhat skeptical.

      Apartmentblog.com (http://www.apartmentguide.com/blog/tightest-rental-markets/) puts Philly at 94% and DC at 95% occupancy; and according to rentjungle.com prices in DC prices have trended upward over the last six months; 31% for a two bedroom, 15% for a one.Report

    • Avatar Damon in reply to zic
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      As an inhabitant of a smart growth area, I can FUR SURE say it’s not as cracked up as it’s alleged.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Damon
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        Could you elaborate, @damon?Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Damon
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        @damon

        Smart growth is a set of ideas to guide planning and development; the only ‘it’ there is the things your particular state and local governing bodies decide to apply to development — often with resistance, and always with some people looking to gain advantage through the process. To judge the whole bundle thusly is unfair and unenlightening.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Damon
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        @will-truman
        Oh, like taking existing highway lanes and converting it to HOV lanes and/or paid lanes, increasing the traffic congestion. Adding add’l lanes isn’t “smart”. Like limiting the number of lanes on highways as a choke point to limit exurb development.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Damon
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        I think some of the suggestions on the link Zic put up to be pretty good idea. The whole “choke the suburbs” notion, which I have heard before, seems more likely than not to me to backfire, logistically and politically.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Damon
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        @will-truman

        In certain communities I’d agree. I’ve seen push back from more conservative counties in my state (bearing in mind that “more conservative” just means not as bat shit crazy ass liberal as the rest of the state, but still liberal) but in CERTAIN counties, I’ve no doubt that this is the case. Example. I used to drive down certain main, non highway, roads to work. This particular county is rich, yet they can’t seem to put up those detectors at traffic intersections that note when there are cars on the cross streets, and so cycle the lights. No, there is only a fixed timing. Nothing like sitting at a light for 5 minutes or more waiting for the light to cycle on an empty road. Yeah, and don’t try to blow the light, ’cause they put up cameras.

        Put up a major highway connecting two other major highways-toll only-and then put the speed at below 55? And put cops on every single mile of the road to enforce that? Yeah, don’t tell me that’s not intentional.Report

  4. Avatar Will Truman
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    One of the arguments that I’ve started entertaining is San Francisco proper has been more than pulling its own weight, in terms of development. Where I think a lot of the problem lies is in its suburbs. Which, sure, may still be considerably more dense than Houston, but Houston has the room to sprawl and so the toll that sprawl takes on affordability isn’t much of a factor.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Will Truman
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      This is definitely an important factor. Unfortunately many of the ‘burbs are dead-set against increasing density.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Will Truman
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      The suburbs of San Francisco aren’t doing much to help in the housing crisis. As I pointed out yesterday, San Francisco’s Brooklyn, Oakland, could certainly house many more people considering its geographic size and transit acccess. Berkely could also help with the housing crisis. Google actually wanted to build apartments for its employee’s in Mountain View, Calfornia, where its’ main office is located, but the city fathers refused to allow anything but single-family homes from being built.

      There are some suburban cities like Walnut Creek, where my parents retired to, that are allowing for the construction of apartment buildings in the downtown areas near the BART stations. The housing crisis in the Bay area is so severe that the rent is 2,500 a month for an apartment in whats a relatively large distance from San Francisco proper.Report

  5. Avatar Roger
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    Great post, Nob.

    I will just add that it is interesting that in Houston you see the emergence of conservative republican enclaves that carve themselves out of the surrounding suburbs. Two on the north side of town are called Kingwood and The Woodlands. There are others. These are semi protected (via isolation not gates) areas with strong building codes and regulations on protected lands. They do try to carve out multi family housing in their plans, but they are a deliberate escape from Houston.

    They are real nice places to live though.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Roger
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      Talking about the population density and sprawl of Houston is like talking about the population density and sprawl of Massachusetts. If you think of Houston as a state rather than a city within a state, the place makes a lot more sense.Report

  6. Avatar Griff
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    Can someone explain “concentrated population density” to me? I read the linked article but I don’t really get it.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to Griff
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      Basically, it measures the population density at which most people actually live. For example, imagine a country with one extremely dense city in the middle, surrounded by a billion square miles of featureless desert with zero population. The population density of this country is extremely low, because of all the desert; but the weighted density is high, because the entire county lives in one extremely dense city.

      In the real world, this is calculated by breaking each city into small chunks (census blocks in the US), and then calculating the density of each one. You then take an average of the density of each chunk, and weight it by its share of the overall city population. This way, if a city adds a vast chunk of land with few or zero people (e.g. an airport or an uninhabited island), it doesn’t drag down its weighted population density.Report

  7. Avatar Burt Likko
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    As anyone who’s played any iteration of SimCity knows, natural boundaries of rivers, lakes, oceans, and mountains put limits on how far a city can grow out before it is forced to grow up and densify. This gets particularly true when areas that are highly desirable run up against these often attractive boundaries: people like to live near a beach or enjoy views from mountainsides, making this property more valuable even if it is more expensive to develop — and thus more expensive for a city’s infrastructure to support.

    Supply and demand applies to dirt the same way it applies to widgets — put a city on a broad, flat plain (SimCity on “easy” mode, to achieve Houston) and you’ll find that it tends to sprawl outwards, growing wide rather than tall until some sort of limit is reached. Hem it in by rivers and rugged hills and oceans (SimCity on “harder” mode, so as to achieve New York), and it drives the price of real estate up along with the skyline.

    Nor is this strictly an American phenomenon; it takes little imagination to think of other large cities around the world that sprawl out rather than up, with only their central business districts really particularly vertical. Paris and Beijing come immediately to mind. Really good infrastructure plays a role, but sometimes a surprising one: Tokyo is the beneficiary of a really good mass transportation network on both a regional and national scale; it’s become the CBD for an entire nation and so it gets dense from that as well as its geographical challenges, some of which have been overcome with truly remarkable feats of civil engineering driven by a combination of necessity and availability of economic resources.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to Burt Likko
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      All true Burt, but geography isn’t an excuse for liberal cities. It is controlled for in studies as is income differences. The inconvenient (for a diehard liberal like me) fact is that Liberals have some tendencies that promote rather illiberal housing outcomes.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to North
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        The study that’s getting the most press doesn’t control for geographical constraint. Rather one of the studies revealed that the markets with the most housing regulations were the ones that had the greatest geographical constraints.

        From the Trulia study:

        As in our inaugural middle-class affordability report, we calculated the share of for-sale homes on Trulia that are affordable to a middle-class household, based on whether the total monthly payment – mortgage, insurance, and property taxes – was less than 31% of the metro area’s median household income. (See note below.) Because we define “middle class” separately for each metro based on the local median household income, our affordability measure takes into account that a middle-class income is higher in some markets than in others.

        There’s no control for geography or population density.

        Note they even admit as much that they don’t know if it’s regulations or geography that’s contributing most:

        It’s complicated to tease out whether geography or regulations matter more because geographically hemmed-in areas also tend to be more heavily regulated (see this academic paper for evidence). But short of filling in San Francisco Bay or paving over the Everglades, local governments have a lot more control over regulation than geography. So why don’t expensive cities relax regulations in order to build more?

        Put more simply: Neither this study nor the study they cite about regulation and geography being correlated, show any CAUSAL effect. More than likely regulations on building and zoning in geographically constrained areas probably come from the fact that these places are very densely populated anyway, and thus require more stringent building codes or use restrictions on the basis of geography.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to North
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        (Whereas the point of THIS post was to account for density and geographical surface area)Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to North
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        Not to be too pithy, but in a lot of respects the conclusion drawn that “we just need to relax regulations and stop NIMBYism!” is one of those pat, condescending “tut-tutting” that a certain segment of liberal society really really likes to push as a narrative. That sort of attitude is really the entire raison d’etre of a place like Vox and it’s one people like Matt Yglesias has built his career around.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to North
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        Geography may make restrictive regulations more likely. Cities that aren’t geographically bounded but that get too restrictive may find themselves outcompeted by suburbs. Toledo, OH, for example keeps facing stiff competition from its growing suburbs, although most of that is tax related rather than regulation per se. But that places constraints on what it can get away with. San Francisco can get away with more because, “What, you really want to move to Oakland or Sunnyvale? Go ahead.”

        That’s on the supply side of regulation. Geographically restricted places also tend to be aesthetically pleasing, which can drive the demand side for regulation. Just yesterday I was reading about the 8 Washington project in San Francisco, a set of condo buildings developers want to build on the immediate north end of downtown along the Embarcadero (the road that runs along the bay from south of downtown up to the Fisherman’s Wharf area). Looking at the project, it’s smaller and lower in height than the buildings immediately to the south and west of it, but it’s being condemned as a huge wall between the residents and the bay. From an outsider perspective the critics seem a bit overwrought. But for anyone who knows the local perspective, it’s not surprising. Many people who live in SF want to keep it the way it is, want to keep the beautiful views just as they are, and create strong demand for restrictive regulation.

        TL/DR: geographic constraints are probably a causal factor of restrictive regulation.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to North
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        Thanks for the correction Nob, that said the debilitating effects of policies like rent control are quite uncontroversial and they’re also (or thankfully used to be) liberal pet projects.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to North
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        I’m not arguing that those policies aren’t counter productive, North. I’m simply stating that the liberal cities start out at a much higher baseline of urban density to begin with: That is, simply adopting the regulatory structure of non-liberal cities isn’t going to magically make them denser.Report

    • Avatar Griff in reply to Burt Likko
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      Paris is an interesting example because it’s actually way denser than NYC or San Francisco. It’s a good illustration of the fact that different land use philosophies can pack a lot more walkable density in without huge skyscrapers or futuristic cityscapes.Report

    • Avatar dragonfrog in reply to Burt Likko
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      Are you using Paris as an example of sprawl, or of a dense city? Because it’s 50% more dense than San Francisco/Oakland. Even pretty far out into the suburbs, you’ll find a mix of low-rise apartments and tall houses on lots that are quite small by North American standards.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to dragonfrog
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        The city of Paris itself is pretty dense, I agree. It’s very hard to find any building less than four stories there.

        But it also has a massive, sprawling set of suburbs, and is situated on a gentle rolling plain, lending itself well to growing out as well as up. And like many European capitals, there are some historical politics that played into why things got concentrated in the city itself rather than its hinterlands.Report

      • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to dragonfrog
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        Paris has some pretty severe sprawl problems when looking at the greater metropolitan area, due to the severe building restrictions and traffic regulations within the city core proper.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Burt Likko
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      Tokyo’s density is somewhat overhyped. Nakano, Tokyo’s densest ward, is slightly less dense than Paris as a whole. Tokyo’s 23 wards as a whole don’t crack the top 50.

      In fact, Tokyo is characterized by a huge degree of sprawl, with uninterrupted urbanization extending to several neighboring cities in other prefectures. And mass transit is what enabled that sprawl, since it’s cheap and easy to hop on the train for a two-hour commute to downtown Tokyo.Report

  8. Avatar j r
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    I’ve got a question.

    Whenever I see these conversations about density and sprawl, the discussion always proceeds from the starting point that sprawl is bad and density is good. So, the question is: what’s wrong with sprawl?

    And I don’t mean that in an argumentative way. I am looking for a good description of the case against sprawl made in terms of specific problems and not based on an aesthetic/lifestyle preference for dense urban areas. Any good links are appreciated.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to j r
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      The arguments against sprawl are:

      1) It’s bad for the environment. The larger free-standing houses lead to higher energy consumption, and they are car-centric.

      2) It’s bad for well-being. More sprawl means longer commute times, which is associated with greater degrees of anxiety and stress.

      3) Due to reliance on automobiles, it can be excessively hard on the poor.

      4) It leads to social isolation.

      That last one is (mostly) crap, but the other three have some merit.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller in reply to j r
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      Will’s points are all good ones. The only other thing I’d mention is that sprawl is subsidized. Parking minimums are the big offender here, and even cities like Houston that aren’t known for restrictive zoning are pretty bad on this front. Here’s a Cato Unbound series on them that’s pretty interesting reading.Report

  9. Avatar Brandon Berg
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    The fact of the matter is that city planners and liberal urban advocates are going to have to move beyond simply combating NIMBYism and clique-ish neighborhood associations and come up with active incentives for property owners to invest both in increased FAR AND providing some form of low income housing within that context.

    Is there any evidence that property owners need incentives to build up in places where market prices are high enough to justify it, or any reason to think that they should be building up in places where market prices aren’t high enough to justify it?

    I guess maybe your emphasis is on setting aside low-income units, and not building at all?

    It seems to me that the way this is usually done—telling property owners that if they want to build they must set aside x% of the units to give away at below market rents—is a destructive, negative-sum game. For any given quantity of housing, giving one household a subsidized unit means forcing out someone else who would have been willing to pay market rent. Putting aside issues of fairness—why should people who aren’t paying their own way get priority over those who are?—this reduces the profitability of building housing, and results in less housing being built overall. Which consequently results in housing being less affordable for everyone except the favored few who get the below-market units.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Brandon Berg
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      I’m actually a bit agnostic toward things like low-income unit set asides. As for incentives, my understanding is that there’s actually a tendency for things like line of sight and sunlight rights to be an issue when building upward: That is, most developers don’t like to build high FAR buildings if it means they have to pay people for taking up their sunlight.

      My overall point is more that I think there’s certainly room to encourage high FAR building plans over lower occupancy units. That is: Making it easier to ask for developers to build high rise condominium residentials, and even zoning so that there’s a MINIMUM floor area ratio rather than what we usually see in urban zoning requirements, which is maximum FAR depending on location.Report

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