Density is not the Devil

November 16, 2022

You want to get people fired up? Feel like picking a fight? Want to enrage an entire community? Mention the word density or god forbid, urbanism. Out come the pitchforks. Time to go. 

I tend to work with smaller communities, places with populations of 50,000 and less. These are typically the towns that are struggling the most. These small to mid-size towns are experiencing the greatest detrimental affects of the sprawl economy. Every day in which Wall Street does better, these communities do worse. Confused? That’s ok- let me explain. 

National chains are typically publicly traded companies, which means their ownership is broken up into thousands of smaller pieces and traded on Wall Street. The owners of all of these pieces are known as shareholders. Shareholders purchase their shares in hopes that they will increase in value so they make money. They want to see growth in order to experience a return, so the executives that run said companies are pushed to grow. Their jobs typically depend on providing a return to the shareholders, and the best way to do that is to grow. So how exactly does a company “grow”? 

The easiest way national chains have found to increase profit is by increasing their footprint. One Bank of America branch can only loan out so much money, one Chipotle can only sell so many burrito bowls. Shareholders want returns so these companies are pushed to grow. Which means more locations. More locations, more growth, more revenue, happier shareholders, and more executives that get to keep their jobs. 

The system is incredibly efficient at migrating the wealth of many into the hands of few. This is why so many towns are in bad shape, because they are being bled dry of the money they need to survive. Every national retailer, bank branch, chain restaurant, and their ilk are funneling more and more money back to their corporate headquarters and their shareholders. Corporate leadership must satisfy the shareholders demand for more money and your community has what they demand. These chains are all just shiny facades for a huge economic extraction industry. These businesses are mining your towns for the precious resource of wealth. 

50 years ago, you could expect your typical town of 30,000 to have a hardware store, a men’s store, a women’s store, a children’s clothing store, a shoe store, an appliance store, an electronics store, a book store, a record store, an arts and crafts store, an auto parts store, a lawn and garden store, a toy store, a pet store, a home furnishings store, a cooking store, a sporting goods store, an office supply store, a convenience store and a grocery store just to name a few, and they would all be locally owned. Today, these are just a partial list of the departments in every single Walmart.

The above is a list of twenty businesses that would have populated nearly every town a generation ago. Twenty separate, free-standing, locally owned, independent businesses. Each of them a source of pride and income for a local family. Each of them another source of employment and likely a good community partner. These businesses were the tenants of the downtown, they occupied the buildings and paid the rent that afforded the needed maintenance. The residential areas built around the downtown had walkable access to all these businesses and friends and neighbors would run into one another when patronizing them. 

The proximity of these businesses to all the houses made life pretty easy. Kids didn’t need bussed to school, or shuttled to soccer practice. Parents could walk to work and to social engagements. Getting groceries only required a short stroll and the same for a visit to the hardware store. All of these businesses were right next to one another and they were situated in the heart of the community, surrounded by housing. They brought people together and generated wealth for local families. Turns out, it was, and remains the best model. 

Downtowns, as they were meant to function, didn’t require seas of parking, because living in these cities didn’t require car ownership. This is how cities, towns, villages and hamlets have  functioned since the advent of civilization and how they operate in much of the world still today. The notion of a dense and walkability community is viewed by some type of socialist European takeover. A very cute, convenient, local wealth generating, quality of life boosting, takeover. 

Using one’s own feet to move around isn’t exactly progressive. Living in proximity to other people isn’t all that modern. Our grandparents enjoyed good urbanism. Their parents were the beneficiaries of density. These ideas go back quite a ways and they remain good ideas. We certainly haven’t improved upon them. Technology will never provide us with a better solution than walking. 

The proliferation of the automobile helped to rapidly facilitate the growth of national chains, which led to an increasingly inequitable economy. When we invited national chains into our communities, or didn’t fight to keep them out, we drove a knife in the back of local businesses while simultaneously showing the outsiders where we keep all the money and jewels. 

We have willingly transferred the control of commerce in our communities from residents to people from outside of our communities and with it, all the money we need to operate them. Instead of 500 local people building their own homes and creating equity in the property, we allow one national developer to come in and build them all and take that equity right along with them. Instead of 100 families owning local businesses at the heart of the community, we allow Target to replace them all, way out on the edge of town, and ship all that local money back to HQ in Minneapolis. 

It’s a pretty raw deal, yet we keep making it. Our cities and towns will never recover as long as we continue to build more roads and allow more sprawl. Every new national chain, every new bank branch and chain restaurant deprive our cities of the resources they so desperately need. They deprive a community of a sense of ownership, of sense of authenticity and uniqueness, a sense of pride and even leadership, of quality jobs and of course, of money.

There is a way out, a very simple and practical solution. It’s called density and it’s not evil- I promise. National chains and developers are best suited for sprawl. They are far less inclined to come to your community if you aren’t subsidizing them through sprawl infrastructure. Stop expanding into the farm land and they will have no place to go. 

Go old school and focus on what made your city great a century ago. Density, walkability, local ownership. These crazy ideas could work for you again today. The density of downtown is geared towards local ownership, in terms of real estate and in terms of commerce. Bonus- this type of density generates considerably more taxes for the municipality on a per acres basis. Second bonus- it’s cheaper to build and maintain. Third bonus- density done right is beautiful, it attracts visitors and raises property values, it makes people proud and helps foster a sense of engagement. Fourth bonus- density facilities a stronger sense of community. Walkable places bring people together and they come to care about one another and are far more likely to put down roots. 

The secret to restoring health to our cities isn’t all that complicated, but we have grown so scared of the solution. Density does not mean high-rise towers, housing projects, or some inner-city picture you have in your head of blight and crime. It simply means proximity- which is how all of our cities were originally built. And as far as crime goes, cars kill 40,000 Americans a year, so I’ll take my chances with density. 

In going retro when it comes to our built environment, we could save our cities and towns from the economic havoc that has been visited upon them, but it won’t happen as long as density is perceived as the enemy. Your town desperately needs good urbanism. It’s what drives affection, engagement, spending, and civic pride. More sprawl will never get you out of the hole it created. 

Walkability, density, and good urbanism are the only way forward. Shareholders might push back on these concepts and Wall Street executives have nothing to gain when cities are self-sustaining. Healthy local economies are bad for big business, because if your town keeps more money, they don’t get to enjoy it. Car manufactures, national chains and big developers aren’t going to like it much either, but maybe their best interest doesn’t align with your community’s. 

It will be okay. Density is not the devil. Good urbanism will not be your downfall, walkability is nothing to be afraid of. Consider when your community was at its best, consider where people still travel to today, consider the healthiest cities and districts across the country. They all share the same feature and that is good urbanism. No, density will not kill your community, it may be the only thing that can save it. 

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