Density gets a bad rap in America. The mere mention of the word "density" causes the average citizen to experience nightmarish fantasies such as massive structures towering over the landscape, poor environmental quality and exasperating traffic congestion. Unfortunately, these fears are not completely unfounded. High-density developments built after World War II - shoddy apartment towers, isolated office parks, obsolete mega-malls - too often exhibit some of these problems.
The performance of contemporary high density development contrasts poorly with the great historic places that are landmarks of American culture. Looking at the heritage of building left by our country's founders, it is apparent that many of America's best-loved communities have surprisingly high densities (see below). Why do new dense places compare so badly to the great historic ones? Why does density in one development reduce the quality of life, while a historic town with the same density proves immensely satisfying for residents and visitors alike?
One major difference is design. Our greatest towns and neighborhoods have dense areas that are designed with excellence. This means the individual buildings are arranged along the street to make "outdoor rooms" that are pleasant, functional public spaces. The safety and enjoyment of people on foot is the first priority. Whether you're on a leisurely stroll or a fast-paced hike, the streets are great places to walk. They have broad sidewalks, human-scale architecture, and rows of trees with abundant foliage. The traffic speed on local streets is 20-25 m.p.h.; in the center of large boulevards it is somewhat higher.
The building stock in the best historic centers is sturdy, with good light and ventilation. The buildings themselves contain a multitude of uses, but their exteriors harmonize through the use of a few shared architectural elements. The varied mix of uses creates a lively street life, convenient services and enhanced cultural opportunities - all the advantages of in-town living.
A persistent fear about density is related to crime. Even the greatest of historic city centers have experienced cycles of decline, and it's not too difficult to find dense areas that struggle with poverty and lawlessness. But dense town centers do not inherently create social problems. As the U.S. population expands into the suburbs, conditions like overcrowding, traffic fatalities and escalating crime are increasingly turning up in low density subdivisions.
Another complaint about density is the parking. In previous centuries, most urban transportation was by foot or rail, so historic neighborhoods are short on private garage space. Dense neighborhoods continue to function best when served by convenient, comfortable transit. In addition, new urban designers address modern parking requirements with a variety of techniques. On-street parking, either parallel or angled, is provided in all possible locations. Parking courts in the interiors of blocks are lined with shops and residences. Parking decks and underground garages are built where finances permit. These techniques provide an adequate quantity of parking, located in ways that do not disrupt the pedestrian realm.
A selection of "all-star" historic places and their densities from Census 2000:
Oak Park, Ill. Census tract 8128: 19 dwellings per acre
French Quarter, New Orleans, La. Census tract 42: 20 dwellings per
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. Census tract 42.02: 35 dwellings per
Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, Calif. Census tract 104: 35 dwellings
Park Slope, Brooklyn, N.Y. Census tract 157: 53 dwellings per acre
Beacon Hill, Boston, Mass. Census tract 202: 94 dwellings per acre
Census Bureau figures were used to determine the density as measured in dwelling units per acre of land. Non-residential elements such as streets, parks, and commercial and civic buildings are included. If they were subtracted, the density figures would be higher.
© Copyright 2002 by Laurence Aurbach.