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.
But 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 HafenCity. Titled "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.)
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.
Remember 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
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.
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.