Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Residents don't want "density" ... but they do want the benefits that come from more population

When people lament that their neighborhood "lacks retail" I usually turn the conversation around and ask them "why do you think that is?"

In a GGW thread I made a side comment about desires to recapture and restore the Takoma Theatre as an active entertainment use.  Someone who also lives in the neighborhood scoffed, saying that he didn't care about that but wants upscale restaurants and boutiques.

I laughed vocally and in print in response.  With a limited population at the neighborhood scale, such retail "amenities" don't magically appear.  They need the ability to draw on a customer base larger than what is present within the neighborhood.  Cinemas and theaters are anchors, drawing in customers that end up being shared with nearby businesses, including restaurants, making the "pie" bigger than the neighborhood could otherwise support.

Typically, less dense or lightly populated communities lack the number of residents necessary to support the breadth and depth of retail they want.

It's only "worse" now because of concentration within various retail sectors, changes in people's shopping practices, preferences for lower prices, plus e-commerce, which has destroyed some retail and service sectors (music, videos, travel, books) and taken away a portion of sales volume from others.  See "The long term shake out of local retailers and independent retail districts"

This means changes within the metropolitan retail landscape at the scale of neighborhood, multiple neighborhood ("regional" shopping districts within a city serving multiple neighborhoods), and regional shopping destinations serving very large retail trade areas.  Districts are refocusing around food and other convenience goods (hardware, pharmacy) and certain categories aren't represented except by boutique outlets.

But, if you want more retail, a functioning neighborhood theater, etc., it's fair to say that you need more residents...  and how else are you going to get that but with an increase in residential density?

This is relevant because Joel Kotkin points out in "City Leaders Are in Love With Density but Most City Dwellers Disagree" from the Daily Beast that residents "don't want more density" but "planners do."  He makes this point out of his more general argument that suburban residential living still dominates residential choice decision making.

I think he misses the point.   What is it about "density" that people don't want?

Density or more importantly and accurately, "more residents" (this is the basis of the argument in favor of healthy cities laid out by Jane Jacobs in Death and Life of Great American Cities) means more customers for retail businesses, more local tax revenue, more eyes on the street to support public safety, more customers (hopefully) for transit, more people able and willing to be civically active, etc.

Density isn't some reflexive desire, devoid of context. 

From the book (pp. 208-212):

What are proper densities for city dwellings?  … Proper city dwelling densities are a matter of performance … Densities are too low, or too high, when they frustrate city diversity instead of abetting it …  Very low densities, six dwellings or fewer to the net acre, can make out well in suburbs …  Between ten and twenty dwellings to the acre yields a kind of semisuburb …
However densities of this kind ringing a city are a bad long-term bet, designed to become a grey area. …
And so, between the point where semisuburban character and function are lost, and the point at which lively diversity and public life can arise, lies a range of big-city densities that I shall call “in-between” densities.   They are fit neither for suburban life nor for city life.  They are fit, generally, for nothing but trouble …

I should judge that numerically the escape from “in-between” densities probably lies somewhere around the figure of 100 dwellings to an acre, under circumstances most congenial in all other respects to producing diversity.

Cities in Full by Steve BelmontBut today, with changes in shopping patterns and how retail sectors are organized, 100 dwellings to an acre doesn't support the kinds of neighborhood and urban outcomes people want.  (Note that the first chapter of Belmont's Cities in Full puts numbers to Jacobs' arguments.  And Belmont's numbers too need to be updated in the face of e-commerce.)

Despite Jacobs, somehow planners fail to make the case that density "produces" the kinds of amenities (or "outcomes") that people want for their neighborhoods and their city.  

In a conversation yesterday with Anke Hansing, the marketing coordinator for IBA_Hamburg, we were talking about the themes outlined in the joint exhibition by their project and HafenCityTitled "Building the City Anew: Imagining Tomorrow's Hamburg," It's on display for the next few weeks at the University of Maryland College Park School of Architecture.

It's worth seeing.  (Although it will be displayed again in November at the University of District of Columbia, in association with an all-day conference.)

The exhibit is organized into four themes; one is termed the "Open City."  She said that the "Open City" is about how community dialogue and participation is essential to the process of transforming communities, and is a response to how people across Europe--not only in Hamburg--are taking a much more active role in their communities, that they want to participate and shape the future, rather than just accept top-down decisions.  I told her about the old saying "think global, act local."

I countered how in the US, this isn't so much the case, that residents, especially homeowners, take responsibility for their house, maybe their block (I wish I could get other residents on my block to pick up litter...), and maybe their neighborhood, but not their city.

I fault planning and planners to some degree for this problem, because planning iterations are set up with a major disconnect, are set up from the outset to fail.

Planners have two responsibilities, to address city-wide goals and objectives simultaneously with neighborhood goals and objectives.  But rarely are these sometimes conflicting outcomes defined overtly.

On the other hand, residents tend to only take responsibility for addressing neighborhood objectives, refusing to take responsibility for the achievement of broader/city-wide concerns and objectives.  This is opposite of the new sense of responsibility taken on by citizens in European cities like Hamburg, in part a response to fears of the impact of climate change gone unchecked.

This conflict is accentuated because planners tend to only define the residential concerns in the public processes, and to not differentiate the appropriateness of various types of interests and concerns depending on land use, urban design, and other considerations.

For example, I get frustrated in such sessions when everyone wants "open space" and the planners don't point out where this desire is in conflict with other priorities, such as at a transit station where the priority needs to be leveraging the financial cost and investment in transit.  Or residents state that the neighborhood doesn't have any "open space" and don't consider campuses and big front yards as part of the neighborhood's green space. 

So yes, "people don't want density" but they do want "amenities."

But, I would even argue that they aren't necessarily against "density" but they are against big buildings poorly designed and poorly built.  I think about this in terms of Takoma in DC/Maryland.  When the Metro was first proposed, it was accompanied by station plans.

Delta TowersRemember this was during the urban renewal era, so block-y ugly buildings were the primary result of public planning processes back then.  Think H Street's Delta Towers.

So of course residents fought this off.

While they were successful in Takoma in fighting off this change--which wouldn't have only been at the Metro site, but beyond--maybe they learned the wrong lesson.

That "density" was bad, rather than the lesson that crappy looking density was bad.

Nuance is tough.
Images of a protest flyer and the cover of a station area plan for the Takoma subway station from the article "Call to Arms: Activists defend a community under seige" by Diana Kohn, in the May 2009 issue of the Takoma Voice.
Images of a protest flyer and the cover of a station area plan for the Takoma subway station from the article "Call to Arms: Activists defend a community under seige" by Diana Kohn, in the May 2009 issue of the Takoma Voice

HafenCity has planned for and is building a dense community, 12,000 residents and 45,000 office workers in about 2/3 of a square mile.  But they built parks, cultural spaces, social housing, community centers, extended the subway system, constructed bicycle paths, created a university--devoted to the built environment and metropolitan development, are building a Philharmonic Hall, subsidize retail development, have created community communication centers for public participation, etc.

Interestingly, one of the comments made by Jürgen Bruns-Berentelg, CEO of HafenCity supports my general point that we construct the communities we get based on our rules and processes.  

He talked about how "everyone" said that families wouldn't want to live in the city center, in tall dense buildings, but how once they built an elementary school, HafenCity began attracting many families, and in turn the organization developed participation processes to engage children, such as in the design of a playground (above, photo courtesy of HafenCity).

The point I am making is not that people need to live in tall buildings, but that some will, if it is an element of and a way to live in a complete community ("HafenCity Hamburg - What does HafenCity have to offer for kids?"). 

Density in and of itself isn't bad.  What's bad is monoculture districts.  And the failure to plan comprehensively and to fully implement integrated plans.

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At 9:07 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

"What's bad is monoculture districts"

Yep. Nailed it.

And in the US, over time, those monocultures go bad.

Saw a big article somewhere on Koreans and apartment living. Something like 75% of the country lives in ugly apartment blocks.

And it is fascinating game theory problem. For example, that post on GGW re: the Shaw metro parking miminums. Clarly an imbalance there between the legitiamage (local) desire to make sure there is enough parking vs. the city wide need to develop that parcel and that cars can go elsewhere.

(related to that is micro units)

Also the point on GGW re: poor people and DC; as I dont' see the model for DC to have poor people (vs. the rest of region) or familes with very expensive kids (again vs rest of region). You can shift that stuff out in our context.

At 12:14 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

went to a presentation on citycenter today. Will write about it in the next day or two. In the past I have been critical about the project, but in many ways it is a step forward.

One of the things they are trying to do is a parking garage that can also function to support the area around it, which isn't something we do much of in the city.

And that made me think about the point you are making, such as about conflicting citywide and local goals concerning Shaw, although I was thinking about it in terms of Capitol Hill (Eastern Market) and H St.

Over the years I have come to recognize it is important to have some "public parking" in key commercial districts because people are gonna come by car too, regardless of the variety of sustainable options. Structured public parking (underground) keeps it off the residential streets, reduces intra-district congestion (especially if paired with coordinated valet parking) etc.

But DDOT is making recommendations against this with such projects as the Hine project on Capitol Hill, which also will serve Eastern Market on weekends and the 8th St. SE "food and beverage" district, etc.

This is why I argue for the creation of multi-modal transportation management districts in such places, to do better planning and coordination of shared resources, but also recognizing sometimes it might be taking the opportunity to build some parking too (although DC/USA shows you can build too much).

But there will be a minimal number of add'l parking spaces at Hine, too few to to make much difference. The same goes for the building that will be constructed where H St. Connection is.

I know that my sustainable mobility orientation would find building parking to be anathema, but from an overall planning perspective, I think it's important to judiciously add to inventory and coordinate it in order to reduce conflicts and to ensure a "better quality of life" for abutting residents.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

wrt the expense of educating kids, you can bite the bullet on some of it, but you're right that the more that "burden" can be shifted the better.

But since we have the impoverished that we have and the kids need to be educated, there is a baseline requirement that we have to deal with.

In Seattle, one of Suzanne's friends participated in a school co-operative for one, maybe both of their children.

I thought that was pretty interesting, it's definitely an option not available around here.

At 12:46 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Right, on kids, the point is that 10 (15?) years ago I think "the city" and/or Williams realized they needed new residents who 1) pay taxes; 2) don't have kids; and 3) aren't on medicare/medicaid.

That isn't a "city" -- it is a recognition that DC is a small part of a larger metro and can specialize in ways that other areas cannot. Can it work for another 10 years -- I have no idea.

In terms of public parking, yes. You either need to charge for it (the lot under Georgetown park always did a great business before it closed, and it wasn't mall users) or put a strict time limit. (The West end WF has a strict 90 minute wait, the one on P st is not. Guess which one the cabbies go to?)

Nationals stadium is another good example - making sure you can't park on the streets during games.

And shoehorn bike/transit into that parking as well (bike valet at the stadium could be expanded. Same with another number of other places.

At 2:10 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

yes to your last point. It's the basis of my point that we need TMDs not parking management districts.

Similarly, I think that the NCTSOM's proposal for an underground parking structure under the Nat. Mall is a good idea, it's only 40% as visionary as they think it is. It needs to integrate bike parking and visitor services, and should be an element of broader transportation demand management of visitor movement, e.g., including my heritage streetcars on the mall idea.

At 2:15 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I think Mayor Williams pursued a pro-children and a not pro-children policy simultaneously. Support of the charter school agenda is a recognition that the DCPS was beyond fixing and you still needed to educate kids in the city, especially for those people "with choices" choosing to live in the city (even if the cost of educating the kids makes these households a revenue loss).

But then the other, the attraction of new residents.

2. I remember this ANC commissioner who was anti-Caucasian at a public meeting in a side conversation with Karina Ricks, maybe 2002 or 2001, arguing that you needed more single family housing built in the city, not apts., capable of accommodating "two adults, two kids, and a dog."

That's not the direction we've gone.

3. the other "anti-children" initiative was the rebuilding of public housing with HOPE6 programs. That didn't result in one for one replacement of units for the extremely impoverished, displacing many people including children to PG County (among other places).

I keep mentioning how the Gazette did this amazing expose of the impact of DC HOPE6 reduction in housing units for the poor on PG County, and the resulting increase in crime, hospital admissions and ec. problems at their public hospital, etc. That was around 2004-2005.

At 11:13 PM, Blogger IMGoph said...

Speaking of Tony Williams, it was interesting to hear him talk last night at the Historical Society of Washington's yearly meeting. One of the things he mentioned was density. Gave a quick anecdote about your "typical person from NW DC."

Said you could ask them this series of questions:

- Do you believe climate change is a problem?
- Do you believe that denser urban living makes more sense?
- Do you think the city should encourage that?
- Do you think the city should encourage it near where you live?

Of course, the typical NW resident would answer yes to the first three and no to the fourth.

At 8:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the way I see it density is a generational and cultural issue. Old people brought up thinking that having a car is key to everything is part of the problem- a big part. I am afraid that we are not going to see real change until the current generation of65- on up dies off. They are the ones that come to the neighborhood meetings and hold up all kinds of great initiatives - all of this just so they can PARK their cars.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I wonder if there will be a write up or video of Tony Wms' talk?

At 10:17 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

sorry, my links keep getting lost.

korean and apartment living:

also I meant to send you this earlier (hafencity):

Nytimes just ran a similar story today.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger IMGoph said...

Richard: I don't believe anyone there was filming it. Also unsure if it was being covered by any print media, unfortunately.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

so much in charlie's point. Yesterday's WSJ had an article about how with more companies disconnecting from the grid, prices are going up. I mentioned that as an issue in a post a few months ago too.

2. and the issue about (1) whether to do Keystone pipeline, (2) whether to allow a coal dock to export coal to Asia in Seattle, and (3) whether to allow a dock at Calvert Cliffs to export LNG touches on issues raised in the Der Spiegel article.

Plus (4) an article I read somewhere that says that for the most part we're ignoring recognition of hydropower as a sustainable energy source.

Solar and wind power is more erratic and more expensive than other sources.

And those other countries to where oil or coal or LNG would be exported to might use worse energies instead or will still get the energy from sources other than Keystone, the coal dock in Seattle, an LNG dock in Maryland...

Plus (5) McCartney's recent not well written column about how Dominion Resources should do wind power out in the Atlantic even though they'd lose money doing it.

My mental response to that was that we should create a fed. govt. wind power TVA equivalent. Not that we could ever do that in this political environment.

That takes the risk away from "investor owned utilities" and allows the FWPEA (Federal Wind Power Electricity Authority) to build the market.

Ideally in ways that don't dis the poorer.

The WSJ article mentioned how Kroger is doing wind power and stuff, but amazingly is using food waste at a distribution center as stock for biogas creation, covering 20% of the energy they'd normally be purchasing for that building. That's pretty amazing.

in a fluke, I had already read the story on Korea and apartments, because Christopher sent me a Japan Times article on libraries, and in the article there was a link to the Korea piece.

But your breadth of reading always amazes me.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

... so I signed up for the Der Spiegel daily e-letter... and now to write my next article on HafenCity, IBA_Hamburg and Baltimore...

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