If you believe in building better cities, say so

It’s not enough to know that adding density is a smart idea. Instead, it’s vital that those of us who believe in building better cities publicly make the case for them.

Last week, I wrote a post comparing the urban amenities in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah’s two largest metro regions. Though I concluded that Provo ultimately has more concentrated amenities, I also mentioned that “in Provo, there’s almost no support for adding density to downtown neighborhoods.”

DSCN5760

A residential neighborhood in Provo

Admittedly, it was an unfair comment to make. As a number of friends subsequently pointed out, there is support for adding density in Provo. The same could be said for most cities; ultimately, successful places have smart growth champions.

But I wrote that sentence out of frustration after seeing a steady stream of anti-density comments online, in public meetings and elsewhere. Which makes me wonder if the problem — or the frustration that I feel when discussing this topic — means we’re losing the battle for hearts and minds. While there are advocates for density everywhere, it seems like they are too few and too far between.

This needs to change. We need to more effectively take the message to more people. I’m not sure how to practically do this — my own efforts don’t seem to have converted many anti-density folks — but there must be a way.

In any case, I think those of us who support density allow the conversation to be dominated by the other side for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s far easier to surrender already-occupied neighborhoods. Adding density to these places requires a Herculean struggle against NIMBY opposition and it’s easier to simply give up and move on.

Instead, we focus on building up and adding density to “central business districts.” This seems to be more or less the strategy in Utah’s cities right now. Dilapidated and deserted downtowns offer ample space for development and there are few people already there to get in the way.

Provo's Central Business District

Provo’s Central Business District

But there’s a problem with that strategy: building up a central business district is a very expensive and very slow process. A look around Utah right now bears this point out; many downtowns are adding housing downtown, but at a painful snail’s pace. Most of it also looks flimsy and ugly to boot.

More alarming still, this kind of development often requires considerable government support to prop it up. In Provo, for example, the city had to build huge, expensive parking structures to induce development. That isn’t uncommon in cities. Nearly a year ago I wrote that his strategy was kind of working for Provo, but it still amounts to massive government handout to a private developer.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could add density without forking over piles of public cash?

Salt Lake City's Central Business District is also the subject of densification efforts.

Salt Lake City’s Central Business District is also the subject of densification efforts.

The truth is that we can, by taking the density argument to the neighborhoods. It’s vastly cheaper (or should be), for example, to add a house or pocket neighborhood here and there in existing neighborhoods. This kind of development doesn’t require government investment because it doesn’t require things like big parking structures. It can be handled by local entrepreneurs — people like you and me who can save up to build a home or two in the back yard — which keeps more money in the local economy.

And it happens incrementally and organically, which means more visual and formal diversity. It’s better in nearly every way.

In other words while we’re waiting for decades for big developers to fill up central business districts with condos, dozens of residents could be getting rich densifying neighborhoods at a much faster rate and for much less money.

But this will only happen if we publicly make the case for density. It will only happen if we are persuasive and vocal, reshaping the discourse around density to reflect a nuanced and complex reality. When that happens, we will have unleashed the potential of our cities.

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