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The Real Case for Density

Margaret Weir

At least since the 1950s, concern about the pattern of sprawl in metropolitan areas has sparked calls for reform. Critics have charged that sprawl is irrational, promotes racial inequality, and wastes public resources. Luria and Rogers give this old argument a new twist by tying the case against suburban sprawl to the quest for the "high road" in production and service delivery. Although their new arguments about the benefits of density are not wholly convincing, many of the older reasons for stemming sprawl retain considerable force. Furthermore, despite formidable obstacles, there are some political openings for moving in that direction.

The argument connecting increased density to the high road of economic development is not persuasive. First of all, Luria and Rogers's observation that metro areas contain much of the existing high-road development is problematic because they note earlier (in footnote 1) that metro regions contain more than half of the population: given this broad understanding of metro, the overlap of metro and high-road development can hardly be a surprise. Moreover, many of the most celebrated agglomerations--for example, Massachusetts's Route 128 or California's Silicon Valley--are classic products of what is conventionally understood as suburban sprawl. If they count as metro, then the category is fairly meaningless; if they don't, then the connections of metro and agglomeration are suspect. Second, many of the measures Luria and Rogers propose for moving to the high road--for example, hefty increases in the minimum wage and increased unionization--are only loosely related to density. Third, there is little evidence that by itself density will promote the inclusion of poor minorities now isolated in cities. In a study of South Brooklyn, Phillip Kasinitz and Jan Rosenberg show that local industries refused to hire jobless residents of nearby housing projects, preferring instead to hire immigrant workers who lived on the other side of the borough. Social networks, not sheer proximity or distance, are a key factor in the economic and social isolation of the urban poor.

What, then, are the benefits of density, and are they worth pursuing? Luria and Rogers are on-target when they point to the waste of public resources inherent in our current slash-and-burn approach to development. The expense of building new infrastructure in the exurbs and the costs of coping with the deterioration in declining areas are compelling grounds for stemming sprawl. So are the environmental dangers. Unregulated development that situates new housing in flood plains, on earthquake faults, and in the center of natural habitats is costly, dangerous, and destructive. Density will ease the patterns of metropolitan inequality by limiting the segmentation of public resources and promoting voice rather than exit as a way to address public problems.

How, then, can we promote denser patterns of development? Luria and Rogers believe the case for density is so persuasive on the grounds of material interest that they do not probe the problem of political will sufficiently. But the barriers on that score should not be underestimated. From George Washington's activities as a land surveyor in Virginia to Bill Clinton's hapless investments on Arkansas's White River, land speculation has been one of the most lucrative and politically protected undertakings of the powerful. When combined with suburban politicians who play the race card to promote separatism--regardless of the longer-term interests of their constituents--and urban politicians fearful of losing power in regional entities, the political alliance for preserving the status quo is impressive. Still, I think there are three promising routes to moving the metropolitan agenda forward that particularly address the question of suburban resistance.

One is the federal government. The federal budget impasse and the political weakness of cities halted Clinton's early efforts to increase spending on cities. Regulatory measures to promote metropolitanization and incentives attached to existing funds are more attractive in the current political climate. Urban advocates within the first Clinton administration were developing plans that would reward metro areas for sharing resources across political boundaries; they are likely to pursue this project in the new administration. Many small initiatives that would promote density and assist cities--such as siting of federal facilities--may be implemented through administrative channels, bypassing the need for congressional approval and providing an opening wedge for reorienting thinking about federal programs to promote metropolitanization.

A second agent that could press for limiting sprawl is the environmental movement. In the 1970s, environmental organizations were ambivalent when Congress repeatedly considered and failed to pass a National Land Use Act that would have encouraged the states to shape development. But environmentalists had a different agenda then: they were pursuing federal regulation and wilderness protection. Today, they recognize more fully the environmental damage caused by suburban sprawl. They also sense more keenly the limits to federal regulation and have developed new interests in "sustainable development." Both are promising developments, not least because of the sympathy that environmental goals arouse among people who live in suburbs. But to make these new orientations among environmentalists more politically salient at the metro level, the environmental movement needs to strengthen its local chapters. For too long, environmentalists have focused their attention on Washington without nurturing the local base that is needed to pursue environmental goals today.

Finally, there is a broad self-interest argument for increasing density. Luria and Rogers argue that their hardheaded economic arguments should appeal even to citizens who are unmoved by moral considerations. The case for increased density can, however, be made on the more straightforward ground that a significant portion of Americans are frustrated with the lives they lead in our decentralized metropolitan areas. Proponents of the current pattern of development commonly argue that these are the lives people want. In fact, there is considerable frustration with the hours spent in traffic and the social isolation that are an ingredient in the contemporary form of suburban development. These complaints have given rise to a "new urbanism," evident so far primarily in developments such as Disney's Celebration. But there is no reason that these same ideas--promoting denser development, community interaction, and housing offered for a range of income levels--cannot be used to promote urban and inner ring suburban redevelopment, perhaps at a somewhat lower density than in the past. Offering more choice at the center reduces the attraction of the exit options, breaking the spiral of urban and suburban decline--the Iron Law of Urban Decay--that Luria and Rogers describe.

Originally published in the February/ March 1997 issue of Boston Review

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