Density Doesn’t Come Naturally in Modern America
…Or why are we ignoring existing density?
Let’s take a step back from all the hyperventiliating about how liberal cities have more restrictive building ordinances or problems with NIMBYism and compare some numbers.
Specifically these numbers (all numbers are for Metropolitan Statistical Areas using 2010 Census bureau data):
-Total Population: 5,946,800
-MSA GDP: $375,438,000,000
-MSA GDP Per Capita: $63,132
-MSA GDP Per Square Mile: $42,000,000
-Total Area: 8,827.5 square miles
-Raw Population Density: 673.7 people per square mile
–Concentrated Population Density: 4,109.6 people per square mile
-Total Population: 4,335,391
-MSA GDP: $327,531,000,000
-MSA GDP Per Capita: $75,548
-MSA GDP Per Square Mile: $132,000,000
-Total Area: 2,470.5 square miles
-Raw Population Density: 1,754.8 people per square mile
-Concentrated Population Density: 12,144.9 people per square mile
If someone came to you and argued that City 1 somehow has more rational or less restrictive zoning laws than City 2, there would be a fair bit of skepticism on that conclusion. At the very least, you would have a hard time concluding that there are a set of policies in City 2 that are considered to be an impediment to higher density development than in City 1.
In basically every easily available metric, City 2 makes better use of its available resources. It has more people living there per square mile, it produces more economic activity per square mile, and the people living within the MSA generally have make more money. The one thing we’re missing, theoretically, is the all important floor area ratio (FAR), that compares the total available habitable area within buildings versus total available area, but it’s very difficult to believe that City 2’s overall FAR would be lower than City 1’s, given the differences in population density and overall area.
Now, by far I’m sure you’ve realized that these are statistics from a “blue” and “red” city as compared in both the Derek Thompson piece at The Atlantic and Saul’s post. More specifically, however, the statistics are pulled from the Houston-Sugarland-Baytown MSA in Texas, and the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont MSA in California.
Now it’s true that there is a lot of confused grumbling by liberals on what to do about housing inequality in traditionally liberal cities. Further, the relative affordability of housing space in rapidly growing “Red Cities” makes it appear that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the policies undertaken by the Blue Cities. The simple fact remains that simple geography is a larger constraint than anything else.
In the current configuration of these two metro areas, Houstonians have about 6,800 ft² per person, while the hypothetical average San Franciscan has 2,295 ft². Now there are factors that make San Francisco more attractive than Houston. For example, it’s not 100² with the humidity of a NFL lineman’s jockstrap for a good chunk of the year, but even adjusting for the better weather and not living in a state helmed by Rick Perry doesn’t make up for the fact that square footage in SF costs about 3.5x as much as that in Houston when adjusted for income. That is to say for every floor in an apartment high rise in Houston, you’d need to design one with triple the unit size to have the same level of affordability per square foot.
Please note, however, that this is not meant to elide the fact that there are serious inequity issues that plague urban planning and zoning laws for residential units in liberal cities. What I am interested in pointing out here is more that the restrictions on things like FAR or building height or permitting or conservation status in liberal cities is only part of the issue in addressing the growing housing inequality in those cities. Moreover, the level of density already present in most liberal cities would make the neighborhood associations in even rapidly growing Red-state cities in states like Texas howl. (People familiar with the debate here in Austin can attest that NIMBYism and resistance to trying to loosen zoning restrictions and use restrictions is growing into a bit of a plague, and this in a city that prides itself on being “progressive”.)
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.
(Post Image: The American Grid System, Accessed from Wikimedia Commons)