How Can We Be So Dense? Anti-Sprawl Policies Threaten America's Future


Among university professors, government planners and mainstream pundits there is little doubt that the best city is the densest one. This notion is also supported by a wide number of politically connected developers, who see in the cramming of Americans into ever smaller spaces an opportunity for vast, often taxpayer-subsidized, profiteering.

More recently density advocates cite a much-discussed study of geographic variations in upward mobility as suggesting that living in a spread-out city hurts children’s prospects in life. “Sprawl may be killing Horatio Alger,” quipped economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

Yet the study actually found the highest rates of upward mobility not in dense cities, but in relatively spread-out places like Salt Lake City, small cities of the Great Plains such as Bismarck, N.D.; Yankton, S.D.; and Pecos, Texas — all showed bottom to top mobility rates more than double New York City. And we shouldn’t forget the success story of Bakersfield, Calif., a city Columbia University urban planning professor David King wryly labeled “a poster child for sprawl.” Rather than an ode to bigness, notes demographer Wendell Cox, the study found that commuting zones (similar to metropolitan areas) with populations under 100,000 — smaller cities that tend to be sprawled by nature  —  have the highest average upward income mobility.

“Sprawl” did not kill Detroit, as Krugman suggests in his previously mentioned column, the city did that largely to itself. Another like-minded critic, historian Steven Conn,  blames the auto industry for the city’s problems, perhaps not recognizing Detroit would be little more than a more southerly Duluth without it.

There are at least three major problems with the thesis that density is an unabashed good. First, and foremost, Census and survey data reveal that most people do not want to live cheek to jowl if they can avoid it. Second, most of the attractive highest-density areas also have impossibly high home prices relative to incomes and low levels of homeownership. And third, and perhaps most important, dense places tend to be regarded as poor places for raising families. In simple terms, a dense future is likely to be a largely childless one.

Let’s start with something few density advocates consider: what people want and what they would choose if they could. Roughly four in five buyers, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the National Association of Realtors, prefer a single-family home. This preference can be seen in the vastly greater construction of single-family houses in the past decade: Between 2000 and 2011, detached houses accounted for 83% of the net additions to the occupied U.S. housing stock.  The percentage of single-family homes in the total housing mix last decade was more than one-fifth higher than in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the pattern is not likely to end, barring a longer-term recession or government edict. As the number of households once again begins to rise and birthrates tick up, single-family homes are once again leading housing growth.

Buyers of single-family homes are not necessarily embracing exurban lifestyles so much as reacting to basic economic factors. In many cases the nicest single-family districts closest to work and amenities are prohibitively expensive — think Beverly Hills or Studio City in the L.A. area, Bethesda near Washington, or Evanston outside Chicago. People move further out in order to afford something better than an apartment.

The last decennial Census shows us definitively that people tend to head toward the periphery. Barely 6% of Americans live in densities of over 10,000 per square mile, and the fastest-growing central cities between 2000 and 2010 — such as Raleigh, Charlotte and Austin — have average densities less than a third as intense as places like New York, Chicago, Or Los Angeles.

Overall, domestic migrants tend to be moving away from these denser metropolitan areas. Between 2000 and 2010, a net 1.9 million people left New York, 1.3 million left Los Angeles, 340,000 left San Francisco, while 230,000 left San Jose and Boston. In contrast, some of the largest in-migration has taken place over the past decade, as well as since 2010, in relatively sprawling cities, including Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Tampa-St. Petersburg and Nashville.

Our perceptions of density are often distorted by media coverage, which tends to revolve around city centers. To be sure many downtown areas have experienced impressive growth, but this accounted for less than 1% of the 27 million expansion in the U.S. population between 2000 and 2010. In reality virtually all net population growth in the nation took place in counties with under 2,500 persons per square mile. The total population increase in counties with under 500 people per square mile was more than 30 times that of the growth in counties with densities of 10,000 and greater.

Some inner suburbs may be struggling adjacent to some hard-pressed cities, as is often highlighted by density advocates, but they are thriving in areas where prices are reasonable and the economy is strong. In Houston, arguably America’s most economically vibrant big metro area, over 80% of homes sales in 2012 were outside Beltway 8, the city’s second ring. The city’s inner ring, inside the 610 loop, has experienced an impressive revival, but still it only accounted for 6% of home sales last year.

There is clearly a growing chasm between affordable, family-friendly cities and those that, frankly, are not. Until the 1970s, in virtually all American metropolitan areas, a median-priced home cost roughly three years’ median income. This equilibrium was smashed by the imposition in some states of “smart” land-use policies that seek to limit or even prohibit suburban building, huge impact fees, as well as in some markets,  massive investment from speculators.

As a result, many of the metro areas beloved by density advocates, such as New York and San Francisco, now have median home price multiples well over 6 or 7; if current trends continue, they could, as occurred during the last housing boom, reach upward of 10. Not surprisingly, these areas all have low rates of homeownership compared to the national average.  For example, in New York and Los Angeles, the homeownership rate is half or less than the national figure of 65%. This is particularly true among working class and minority households. Atlanta’s African-American home ownership rate is approximately 40% above those of San Jose and Los Angeles, approximately 50% higher than Boston, San Francisco and Portland, and nearly 60%  higher than New York.

All these factors are particularly relevant to one group: families. Much of contemporary urban theory rests on the idea of weakening family connections: fewer marriages and lower birthrates will decrease the appetite for lower-density housing. Families do not make up the prime market for dense housing; married couples with children constitute barely 10% of apartment residents, less than half the percentage for the population overall.

Families also generally settle in less dense parts of cities, suburban or exurban areas;  the places with the lowest percentage of households with children include favored abodes of the  density lobby such as New York (particularly Manhattan), as well as Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle. In contrast the metropolitan areas with the strongest growth in their child populations — Raleigh, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City — have much lower densities and far smaller urban cores.

This flight from density among families is not merely an American phenomena. There are far higher percentages of families with children in the suburbs of Tokyo, London and Toronto than within the inner rings. The ultra dense cities of East Asia — Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul — have among the lowest fertility rates on the planet. Tokyo and Seoul now have fertility rates around 1 while Shanghai’s has fallen to 0.7, among the lowest of any city ever recorded, well below China’s “one child” mandate and barely one-third the number required simply to replace the current population.

Some have suggested that the Obama administration is conspiring to turn American cities into high-rise forests. But the coalition favoring forced densification — greens, planners, architects, developers, land speculators — predates Obama. They have gained strength by selling densification, however dubiously, as what planner and architect Peter Calthorpe calls “a climate change antibiotic.” Not surprisingly, there’s less self interest in promoting more effective greenhouse gas reduction policies such as boosting  work at home and lower-emissions cars.

The density agenda need to be knocked off its perch as the summum bonum of planning policy. These policies may not hurt older Americans, like me, who bought their homes decades ago, but will weigh heavily on the already hard-pressed young adult population. Unless the drive for densification is relaxed in favor of a responsible but largely market-based approach open to diverse housing options, our children can look forward to a regime of ever-higher house prices, declining opportunities for ownership and, like young people in East Asia, an environment hostile to family formation. All for a policy that, for all its progressive allure, will make more Americans more unhappy, less familial, and likely poorer.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

This piece originally appeared in Forbes.

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"The densification movement is driven by a single criteria -- efficient land use from an environmentalist perspective. This ignores other factors that are equally important to the health and welfare of the urbanized community".

There is nothing efficient or beneficial to the environment in concentrating pollution in large urban coastal cities. You want to save the bay, protect coastal waters? Then get rid of the huge density populations dumping their waste (whether through treatment plants or street gutters)into sensitive areas that cannot withstand the increased, compounded, and denser loads of human waste.

Transportation costs and density

One of the elements that has a direct 1 to 1 relationship with density is mass transportation. The economies of mass transportation just do not work in less dense communities.

Traditional bus and light rail just can never pencil out in low density areas. It will require a good PR effort to educate the population that this type of transportation solution is not financially possible unless they live in a dense city, or they are willing to pay a steep price for it.

Even the hub and spoke rail systems that work to move people in the very dense NYC, Philadelphia and Chicago areas to their suburban or exurban areas have to be subsidised at a very high rate. One of the attributes that many high density advocates promote is easy mass transit. It is beyond time to dispel the myth of cheap mass transportation.

Full disclosure: I live a happy exurbanite life, and believe that the most democratic cost sharing for transportation is a system of roads where the individual carries the largest cost (the car) where the government supplies the less expensive, on a per person basis, roadways.

The "subsidy" fraud

You said it. Mass transit systems now fall into two categories, as cities have evolved.

In most cases, the system is less efficient on all counts than average private cars with only the driver on board. Even on resource consumption and emissions. The only reason the fare charged to riders, is lower than the cost of running a car, is that the subsidy to total system costs is in the order of 90% or so.

In rare cases, the subsidy is "only" 50% or a little less, but in all these cases, the service is focused on the highest income sector in the whole world economy eg Wall St - and the fact that it is subsidised is just another example of the rent seeking that enriches this sector of the economy. Manhattan of all places, should pay its own way for transport, not get Federal gas tax money.

The "subsidy to roads" is NOT the "subsidy to car drivers" - as you say, drivers pay for their own car, their petrol, repairs and maintenance, insurance, etc. As a system, "automobility" MIGHT be "subsidised" 5%, and the unpriced externalities MIGHT add up to another 20%. But who is bearing those externalities? Some mythical bunch of people who do not benefit from automobility?

density and fragility

One of the big unlearned lessons from Tropical Storm Sandy is that super dense cities are extremely brittle. This fragility is overlooked in the densification debate. When something goes wrong in a super dense environment, it goes wrong big time. Had Sandy been as powerful as the great 1938 New England hurricane there would have been the potential for tens of thousands of deaths. Super dense cities inhabited by immobile populations can neither get out of the way nor have the flexibility of less dense areas to respond to the damage. Super dense cities do not create citizens who can improvise, adapt and overcome. They create a population that waits for others to help. Central city urbanites are generally incapable of being their own first responders. Urban planners delude themselves into thinking that density creates community when it fact people living in dense space try to create their own privacy. The kind of networking that gets done in areas of single family homes and/or small apartment buildings easily helps neighbors come together to form a cohesive team in a disaster. I have seen it happen in my suburban neighborhood. As much I might dislike my next door neighbor I will lend him a hand when the time comes and he will do the same for me. This rarely happens in a place like Manhattan where don't know anybody except a few people on your own floor.

Over the last 25 years the culture has separated the people into a class of "first responders" and a passive and helpless public. Throughout most of American history the average citizen was expected to be his own first responder because you are the person at the point of the disaster. Urban planners need to rethink their notions of density and distribution. Spreading the population around in a multi-centered low rise/single family community provides robustness to society. The densification movement is driven by a single criteria -- efficient land use from an environmentalist perspective. this ignores other factors that are equally important to the health and welfare of the urbanized community.


Look forward to further contributions from you

Your comment contains several valuable insights that I agree with very much.

"The densification movement is driven by a single criteria -- efficient land use from an environmentalist perspective. This ignores other factors that are equally important to the health and welfare of the urbanized community".

Absolutely. There are numerous negative unintended consequences, and worsened disaster impacts is one I have had on my list for some years. New Zealand's earthquake-prone cities are a particularly scandalous example of urban planning that grossly disregards any duty to minimise the inevitable death and injury and economic costs of periodic earthquakes and other potential disasters. You enlarge on this basic insight very helpfully.

"Urban planners delude themselves into thinking that density creates community when it fact people living in dense space try to create their own privacy".

There are some helpful papers on this.

"Social Interaction and Urban Sprawl"
Jan K. Brueckner and Ann G. Largey (2006)

"Various authors, most notably Putnam (2000), have argued that low-density living reduces social interaction, and this argument has been used to buttress criticisms of urban sprawl……
"…….The key element in this argument is a positive link between social interaction and neighbourhood density, and our paper tests empirically for such a link. The results are unfavorable: whether the focus is friendship-oriented social interaction or measures of group involvement, the empirical results show a negative, rather than positive, effect of density on interaction.
The paper’s findings therefore imply that social-interaction effects cannot be credibly included in the panoply of criticisms directed toward urban sprawl. In fact, the results suggest an opposite line of argument. With a negative effect of density on interaction, individual space consumption would tend to be too low rather than too high, tending to make cities inefficiently compact, as explained in section 2. Thus, the empirical results suggest that social-interaction effects may counteract, rather than exacerbate, the well-recognized forces (such as unpriced traffic congestion) that cause cities to overexpand."

"Urban Resurgence and the Consumer City" (2006)
Joshua D. Gottlieb and Edward L. Glaeser.

From Section IV: Cities, Sprawl and Social Capital:
“……..while density is correlated with consumer amenities, we show that it is not correlated with social capital and that there is no evidence that sprawl has hurt civic engagement……
“…….The problem with Putnam’s logic (“Bowling Alone”, 2000) is that sprawl is not responsible for longer commutes and that, in fact, commutes are actually shorter in low-density metropolitan areas. Lower density, sprawling areas are not associated with longer commutes, rather they are associated with shorter commutes. As such, it shouldn’t surprise us that these places have more social capital. The longer commutes in dense places discussed in section II should deter social engagement. While high-density living is certainly a plus for many forms of social connection, civic associations do not seem to thrive in higher density areas. Within metropolitan areas, there is no connection between central city residence and most forms of social capital. Across metropolitan areas, density is associated with less, not more social capital, perhaps in part because density is associated with longer commutes. Sprawl may have negative consequences along other dimensions, but it cannot be credited with killing social capital…..”

"Urban form and social sustainability: the role of density and housing type"
Glen Bramley, Sinéad Power

"Social sustainability and urban form: evidence from five British cities"
Glen Bramley, Nicola Dempsey, Sinead Power, Caroline Brown, David Watkins

Patrick Troy's 1996 book, "The Perils of Urban Consolidation", points out that the oft-alleged benefit of "community", does not eventuate in real life in high density communities, where people react to preserve the lesser privacy and personal space they have, withdrawing from contact with others and limiting personal interactions. Furthermore, higher density living often involves a need for tenants associations etc to negotiate rules that inevitably lead to disagreements and ill feeling, on such things as the playing of music, the keeping of pets, and how community space is to be used. Community space and local amenities are often already inadequate for higher numbers of residents, and opportunity for privacy often is minimal.

Troy also points out that requiring people to keep moving as their household size and circumstances change, is an effect that undermines the development of "community". He is also scathing about the nostalgia for some mythical cafe-society urban past that was only ever enjoyed by a small minority of the idle rich.

Maximum denstity

The centralizers and planners, and their developer friends are not going to stop until they achieve maximum density: 6X8 cells with bars on the windows and permission to leave only to work in the collective.

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Houston it a Bad Example

As a Houston resident, I can say your use of home sales outside beltway 8 v.s inside the 610 loop is a flawed basis for arguing the public's preference for lower density communities.

First, the vast abundance of land outside the beltway relative to inside the loop is going to give the outer neighborhoods an inherent advantage for both the raw amount of housing units and the number of SFH sales. To understand the demand for each part of the region, you should factor in the price per square foot of land, which appears to be much higher than that outside the beltway, save for the areas around exurban employment clusters (see my third point below).

Second, by looking at just home sales, you overlook all of the new apartments being constructed throughout the region. This sector of the local housing market has been booming as of late, especially inside the loop. If you are going to make the case that people are overwhelmingly choosing SFHs over multifamily housing, you should also look at what it happening in the rental market.

Third, your comparison of the inner and outer portions of greater Houston illustrate a profound misunderstanding of local land use economics. The comparison implies that Houston functions along the traditional central city model, with the densest areas closest to downtown, with progressively less density the further away from the city's core. The reality is that Houston is an extreme example of a multi-centric metro with pockets of high and low density throughout the region. Many of the outer beltway home sales you cite as evidence that people are choosing lower density living, are occurring in and around far flung high density employment-entertainment clusters like The Woodlands, Energy Corridor, Sugarland and Pearland Town Centers, etc. The area inside the loop is dense because of its proximity to downtown, but also because of its proximity to three other edge city clusters (Uptown, Greenway Plaza, and Texas Medical Center).

If anything, the success of these clusters, both inside and outside the loop, in a metro with lax development regulations, is a good indication that people are voting with their feet for higher density living.

The Houston model: democratised density and walkability

That is a point I make often, that living at higher density with a walkable lifestyle, is an option that SHOULD be scattered all over a region, and hence affordable. Instead, planners turn "T.O.D." nodes into little premium-priced de facto gated communities, especially if a UGB (or a proxy for it) has been imposed and forces up the basic land rent curve in the entire region even before the planners start "adding value" to favoured locations.

The essential problem is the "transit oriented" factor. Transit requires concentration of employment at a central location. As soon as employment is dispersed, transit is a horrific waste of money. But when employment is concentrated at a single central location, and "T.O.D." developments are limited to a few spots on radial transit routes, you get the effect that people are "priced out" of those locations and the central locations.

It would make far more sense to forget mass public transit altogether - just deregulate public transport completely and let whatever private sector system springs up unsubsidised, to provide whatever mobility makes sense in the new urban form. Private para-transit actually was banned back in the 1930's because even then mass transit could not compete with it. If we want to provide mobility for the poor, give them vouchers to spend with whoever will take them to and from where they need to go. The status quo ends up subsidising the transport of the better off who work in CBD's.

But the potential for "walking" as a mode share is at least as good as for mass transit, if only we did our urban planning FOR WALKING AND NOT MASS TRANSIT. THE TWO ARE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. Mass transit=concentrated employment="pricing out". Walking=dispersion=affordability. Ironically, the form is the same for both walkability and automobility; it is just the "design" that needs to be different.

But walking as a transport mode need not cost the taxpayer anything, in stark contrast to mass transit. Plus it is far better for energy consumption and emissions.

So GButler, your point about Houston could be interpreted to say that it is a very good model for all cities to follow. High density "walkable" lifestyles are highly "democratised" under the Houston model. It is a pity Houston are even bothering to waste any public money at all on mass transit.

Author is Too Dense

1. People's preferences should be considered only as far as they themselves with their own resources can pay for them
2. Dense cities foster innovation and create value
3. PRICE is the factor that lets lower density areas show a fare amount of innovation and quite a bit of mobility.
4. Mobility itself ought not to be a goal - avoidance of waste through conservation of talent, now that is a logical goal.
5. AGREE that public policy tends to be STUPID, in that there is no such thing. Government policy ALWAYS by definition is designed to support the private interests of those doing the governing. As regards density, it is people resenting the resources wasted on single family homes, roads, and cars, which they'd rather have themselves.
6. SOLUTION: ABOLISH public policy as regards the development of factories offices shops residences and transportation. Let what folks want to pay for determine what is built.