Monday, May 21, 2012

Jane Jacobs Density

I recently wrote twice (here and again here) about an attack on the California approach to density and the effective rebuttals to the attack.    Density has returned as a hot topic among urbanists, but from a different perspective.

The first broaching of the subject came on a Friday morning two weeks ago when Edward T. McMahon of the Urban Land Institute blogged about the density pendulum.  His concern that the pendulum, having spent a more than a half-century on the drivable suburban  end of its range, was at risk of going too far the other way.  McMahon was troubled that high rises were being proposed in too many places.  He argued that well-configured mid-rises could provide effective urban densities and that high-rises would destroy the feel of cities and create lifeless canyons at street level.

Urbanist Richard Florida gave a keynote address that evening at the Congress of the New Urbanism.   It was an excellent speech, in which he strongly endorsed McMahon’s arguments.  He described high-rises as vertical sprawl and suggested that what cities really need is “Jane Jacobs density”, by which he meant mid-rises that support street life, not crush it.

I recommend the entire Florida video linked above, but expect  that not many folks can spend an hour watching a video.  (If you do watch, you should skip the first eleven minutes.  You’d only miss a handful of announcements.)  If you don’t watch the video, these are some of the other points that he made:

·         In the twenty years since the first Congress for the New Urbanism conference, there has been a sea change in land-use.  The world is now alert to urbanism in a way that was inconceivable at the first conference.

·         In noting some of the disastrous urban policies that were implemented in the post-war years, he said that the best neighborhoods today are the ones that no one thought to touch.

·         He recounted that many considered urbanism to be a fad that would be die first from the crash, then from 9/11, and then from the great recession, but urbanism instead continued to get stronger.

·         In describing the character that he seeks from Jane Jacobs density, he coined the phrase “quality of place”.

·         Lastly, he encouraged the next generation of urbanists not to be seduced by data and spreadsheets, but to take a walk to look at how cities really work.

Robert Steuteville of Better! Towns and Cities blogged about Florida’s speech, including the point about Jane Jacobs density.  He also delved more deeply into Florida’s comments on “quality of place.”

Lastly, Florida weighed back in with a piece for Atlantic Cites, for whom he serves as Senior Editor.  He reiterated the points he made a few days before in his speech. 

I’ll add only one comment to these worthy thinkers.  Except for the aesthetic concern about streets becoming dark canyons amidst a forest of high-rises, the debate needn’t be about mid-rises versus high-rises.  The challenge is to encourage people to be on the street, mingling with their neighbors and adding to the creativity powers of cities.

Home size is a likely a factor.  I think that someone in a 400 square foot home on the 25th floor who joins friends in a pub to watch the big game adds more energy to the city than someone in a 2,000 square foot home on the second floor who has the room to watch the game by himself.

I’m not arguing that we should restrict home sizes in urban settings.  Some residents, particularly large families, need large homes.  But we should recognize the potential impacts of larger units and attempt to internalize the costs.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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