An Irrational Fear of Density

January 11, 2024

I do love a good meme, but don’t we all though? This week, I came across one posted by Donald Shoup that I shared with my wife. She suggested I write about it and I am smart enough to listen. So here we are, I am going to take a meme, turn it into 1200 words, and wait for the TL;DRs in the comments.

The meme was an aerial photo of a new highway interchange in Houston and an aerial photo of Siena, Italy, Both photos showed roughly the same amount of land, but that area in Siena housed a population of around 30,000 people and the same area in Houston housed 0 people. I wouldn’t be surprised if they cost the same to build.

I know people get all worked up when America is compared to Europe and complain that things just aren’t the same. No, they aren’t, we can’t reasonably find a Delorean and rebuild our cities 500+ years ago. Yes, the timelines are quite different, but here is the thing, the people are not that different. We spend a lot of time here making excuses for our substandard built environment to justify why we live this way, but what if instead, we focused on human nature? Americans are not Europeans, but we are human and that provides us with a lot of insights.

Density gives people a chance to walk and walking is essential to the human experience. Humans like to walk and we were built to walk. Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman found that people were meant to walk around 6 miles a day, our bodies were built for it. There are countless examples of how a regular walking routine significantly benefits our health, both physically and cognitively. Anecdotally, people really seem to enjoy walking as well, they walk the dog, they take hikes, and they travel to walkable cities. Humans are designed to walk and we are happier when we do it. On the converse, a lack of walking leads to serious health issues and has become a leading contributor to our obesity epidemic.

Density allows for increased human interaction. Contrary to unpopular opinion, people like being around other people. Humans require human interaction and thrive when we have the chance to feel close to one another. And as above, when people feel lonely or isolated, it tends to lead to serious health consequences.

When we have the chance to interact with more people, we feel more alive. We feel connected and supported, we experience our own humanity to a greater degree. When people don’t interact enough with others, they tend to grow distrustful and I think we have seen in this country where this leads to anger and resentment. It is safe to say that this has created a very hostile landscape in which we live, not to mention the polarization in terms of our politics.

On top of the health reasons, density also has a big impact on our quality of life. With increased density, people spend less time driving, hunting for parking, mowing their lawns, and more time doing the types of things that tend to make them happier. Like walking, engaging in social interaction, reading in a local coffee shop, or riding a bike.

Increasing density leads to a decrease in traffic congestion. When people live closer to the amenities they want and need to access, there is less reason to drive or even own a car. So if you happen to love driving and hate traffic, you should be an advocate for increased density. The more people that can walk, bike or take public transportation to meet their daily needs, the more road you will have all to yourself.

Density is considerably less resource-intensive as well. As people live in closer proximity to one another and their needs, there is less need for cost-prohibitive infrastructure which reduces government expenses. It also creates a reduction in energy and fuel use as people rely more on their own power to move around. Density is not just more environmentally friendly, but more affordable as well.

An increase in density leads to an increased sense of community and resident attachment. When people get to know their neighbors and fellow residents, they feel more rooted in their town. Those connections make residents more likely to get involved and less likely to move away, which in turn increases property values. Those roots compel people to want to stand up for positive change.

It is often, and mistakenly cited that higher density leads to higher crime rates, but unfortunately, the statistics don’t support this supposition. Research has shown that factors such as design, economic conditions, and social programs have a much larger impact than density. Anecdotally, people tend to feel safer when more people are around.

One of the arguments I hear most often against increasing density is that it will be bad for businesses and business districts/downtowns. This assertion simply has no basis. The more people in close proximity to a business, the more opportunity a business has. Decreased density is good for national chains, it is dependent on highways and abundant parking. The big companies have the capital to build in a manner that takes advantage of sprawl. Small/local business does much better in denser environments. Locally owned businesses tend to have a smaller footprint and are better suited to walkable neighborhoods.

There have been countless examples throughout the US and Canada demonstrating that when a car-centric road is retrofitted to be more bike/pedestrian friendly, sales increase. More cars do not always equate to more sales. Sure, if you run a drive-through or are located in the mall, more cars is a reasonable metric to asses, but if your business or building is located in a traditional commercial district, more car traffic does not relate to an increase in sales. Foot traffic is a far better barometer of sales in a downtown or neighborhood commercial district. These places were built on a human scale and fare significantly better when they remain true to that.

There is a fear people have of wresting away public space from automobiles and giving it back to humans, but there is simply no evidence that a downside exists. Motorists might be slowed down, but I don’t see that as being a bad thing, especially considering that vehicular fatalities are at an all-time high. An increase in density brings people together and that surely is a good thing. It reduced government expenses as well as household expenses. It reduces our fossil fuel dependence while making our communities more self-reliant and more sustainable. It’s better for the local economy because it favors small, locally-owned businesses over national chains.

On top of all those reasons, it’s just more fun. It’s nicer, it’s easier, and it’s less stressful. Living closer to one another and to the goods and services we require improves people’s quality of life as well as their health. A little bit of density can have a tremendous impact on people’s physical, social, mental, and fiscal health. It’s also increasingly what people want and are willing to pay a premium for. If you aren’t willing to accept any of the above arguments, that’s fine, keep doing what you are doing, but good luck attracting any new residents to your car-centric community. Those days are done and young families aren’t coming to your mall-town. They are heading to places built for people.

I am not saying we can rebuild Siena in America, but we shouldn’t keep building Siena-sized highway interchanges and trying to convince ourselves we can’t do any better. We can and we must.

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