Beware the 'Density Cult'

 

I love a Parisian stroll as much as the next guy does, but I have friends in the planning community who make me look like Robert Moses. They ride fixies. They build parklets. They live in lofts. They go on urban hikes. Some don’t own cars—in Los Angeles. And I have never heard one of them say, “man, I really wish L.A. was more like Bangladesh.”

Dhaka, for those of you who aren’t up on your jute or abject poverty, is the 15 million-resident, 134-square-mile capital of Bangladesh, a country with an average annual income of $848. Dhaka has 114,000 residents per square mile. That’s roughly the density of the mosh pit at a Justin Bieber concert, minus the shrieking.

It’s safe to assume that not even Bangladeshis consider impoverished, chaotic, unsanitary Dhaka to be an urban ideal. And yet Joel Kotkin, Los Angeles-based urban theorist and persistent critic of downtown revitalization, would have you believe that advocates of smart growth—which, these days, includes not only Andres Duany, Richard Florida, and CP&DR’s own Bill Fulton but also the California Legislature and pretty much every planning director in the state—all want to turn their cities into putrid slums.

This dystopia is the natural extension of advocating for higher density. At least, that’s what Kotkin claims in a recent Forbes article, “Megacities and the Density Delusion: Why More People Doesn’t Equal More Wealth.”

Kotkin’s headline basically answers its own question: “megacities” include everything from Tokyo and New York to Lagos and Kolkata. On face, it’s obvious that size and density do not correlate, directly or inversely, with wealth. They never have. If they did, Aspen and East Hampton would be the food-stamp capitals of America.

This point should be so evident that it hardly warrants discussion. And yet, Kotkin goes on and on about how economic prosperity naturally stems from, and leads to, outward expansion but not necessarily increases in density. He even cites a study by an association of realtors that contends that 80% of adults prefer to live in single-family detached homes rather than apartments. Realtors, mind you.

These would all be fun facts had Kotkin not set up his column with an oddly sinister, and nonsensical, premise. There is, apparently, a “cult of density” among urban planners these days. Specifically, Kotkin says that among “urban core theorists perhaps no idea is more widely accepted…than the notion that higher population densities lead to more productivity and sustainable economic growth.” I hear they also sacrifice goats on subway platforms. Kotkin implies that “higher” means “unlimited” and that these “theorists” believe that ever greater increments of density will result in ever higher increments of productivity. Just like ten helpings of quinoa is ten times healthier than is just one.

As it turns out, if you Google “urban core theorists,” all 10 hits on the first page are attributed to Kotkin’s very column.

Joel Kotkin is an accomplished scholar, so I assume he knows exactly what he’s doing: he is willfully distorting the ideas most famously promoted by Jane Jacobs and now accepted widely in the planning community that say that density is desirable.

But Jacobs never advocated for unlimited density, and neither does anyone else  I know. It’s true, of course, that many progressive planners advocate high densities in the urban core. Full stop. They are not advocating for overcrowding, nor are they advocating for endless zones of density, as if there were no difference between good planning and bad planning, or between enthusiasm and extremism.

For his part, Kotkin has long relegated urban cores to rarified sideshows and believed that the fringes will—and should—keep expanding geographically. It would be nice to have a debate about that notion. Planners should always ask themselves how far is too far, and they should ask what densities are optimal under what circumstances. Kotkin himself has, in the past, advanced plenty of compelling ideas about urban growth. He seems, however, to have doubled down on a sort of extremism that will never make its way into actual policy.

Ultimately, the notion of comparing any American city to any hyperdense city, be it Mumbai or Hong Kong, is patently absurd. For San Francisco’s density to mirror that of Dhaka, it would have to have a total population of 5.5 million; Los Angeles would have 57 million. The only way to do that would be to start importing Bangladeshis. (They would, presumably, all live in straw houses.)

It’s pretty clear that Kotkin is browbeating these hypothetical planners purely for show. He knows that a conservative Forbes readership, nestled in their big suburban houses, won’t have a clue about the nuances of contemporary planning. And he’s not about to educate them. Instead, he’s going to use distortion and nameless straw men to trumpet an argument that literally no one will disagree with.

That number includes my friends. They know that the streets of Bangladesh are no place for fixies. Or, in a humane world, for human beings.