Monday, March 7, 2011

Is Density the Answer?

Edward Glaeser, author of books on planning and economics, addresses key issues about how the post-war suburban lifestyle is a creature of government subsidy through the highway program (actually a military policy) and tax benefits that encourage high consumption of land square footage, energy and water resources. This created a huge population movement in the US out of the dense industrial cities into low density sprawl that consumed vast amounts of then-cheap energy. This form of suburban development, sprawl, is now the cause of escalating consumption, which is becoming unaffordable as well as a danger to the environment.

If you go back in time by visiting urban villages in places like Nepal, you find compact small urban centers with the shop at the ground floor and the living spaces several precarious stories above the shop. These are surrounded by miles and miles of fields and small farm structures, essentially an agricultural society with an adaptation within a hundred years or so of the "town center" where people live together now because they can't afford land or homes. The harvested grain and corn is threshed right in the streets and courtyards, and a few sheep and chickens hang around the edges. This kind of subsistence economy doesn't provide a model for compact design or mixed-use planning as we currently understand it; our western cultures are based on entirely different financial and government models. The same can be said for China, where the old farms and villages are being displaced by huge infrastructure projects, and people migrate to the new cities for the higher pay and better living conditions. The point is, it's not a form solution that can be imposed, but rather a confluence of economic vectors and government structures that are efficient in distributing capital.

If the goal of habitation and transportation design is to reduce consumption of diminishing resources, and to reduce costs in the face of increasing scarcity, the problem to be addressed is one of economics, which is Mr. Glaeser's point. And economics would dictate that subsidies should be directed towards effective conservation rather than physical expansion which becomes more and more expensive to prop up and maintain. In other words, miniaturization and streamlining would have the effect of containing costs, up to a point. At some inflection point, places like New York City and Hong Kong become more and more expensive as density goes up because of lack of space in the face of the demand of people wanting to be where the action is - i.e., jobs.

So the problem is to strike a balance between urban, suburban and rural wildlands such that efficient structures can operate in patterns that are more effective than the kind of cities and suburbs we've created so far. This kind of "green pattern language" can be varied, ranging from clusters of homes within urban edges to dense concentrations of net-zero urban redevelopment.

Hence, stopping sprawl doesn't mean a throwback to old urban forms that arose out of very different agrarian economies and invading every parcel of land with it. It means smart planning that takes into account the land, the resources and the best practices of existing urban cities to create delightful environments. It means rebuilding urban centers like they're sailing ships, balancing the forces and capturing the wind in the sails and the sun on the decks. And leaving the open suburbs and wildlands to flow with restored natural processes.