Commenter Benjamin Hemric replies to my previous post on Manhattan density, arguing that,
1) It’s very interesting that people seem to have very, very different goals and objectives here — and it’s good that these are expressed and out in the open. Otherwise people wind up talking past one another.
The Jane Jacobs goal (which is where I feel I’m coming from) believes there should be HEALTHY (self-generating, market-based) cities (for a variety of reasons, including economic and social ones) — and more and more of them to meet a growing world population. (I think Glaeser also shares this part of the Jacobs viewpoint.)
The saving of the environment (to extend what I see as the Jacobs’ viewpoint) is a by-product. And it isn’t from piling more and more people into a relatively small part of a city but from having many successful high density districts — and by having many dense cities, which by their very nature are greener than suburban sprawl.
2) It seems to me that it’s important to remember that the outer boroughs (to use the NYC example) and nearby northern New Jersey are not pristine undeveloped land, but already pretty well built up albeit oftentimes at relatively low density areas — so making them denser also helps save the environment.
The implied question is as follows: the New York region wants to add more people; where should we plan on housing them?
My environmentalist answer is that they should be housed in dense areas – it doesn’t really matter which ones, as long as they’re walkable and transit-accessible. Even marginally dense areas are okay as long as it’s part of a concerted effort at TOD – say, residential and commercial upzoning in Eastern Queens along the LIRR in conjunction with offering rapid transit-like service levels on commuter rail.
The Jacobsian answer that Benjamin is giving is that they should be housed not in the densest neighborhoods, but in somewhat less dense neighborhoods, on the theory that they’d become greener due to the additional flux of residents. This is, in principle, a good idea. The residents would cause more environmental impact than in Manhattan and live in what are now less walkable neighborhoods, but would induce such development that the impact of existing residents would drop. But it’s not clear which effect dominates, and since both options are much better than any alternative, both should be legal and encouraged; there’s no need for landmarking to force people out of the Village and into Brooklyn.
But that’s all in principle. In practice, densifying outer-urban neighborhoods is a political nightmare. Christof Spieler once wrote about how in Austin, development is governed by a coalition of NIMBYs and suburban developers and boosters. The result: it’s hard to increase density in existing urban neighborhoods, and easy to develop greenfield exurbs. In New York, a similar thing is happening, in reverse – it’s easy to develop in Manhattan’s non-landmarked areas, and hard in the outer-urban neighborhoods and the suburbs. (New York’s exurbs are also growing very quickly, but are too remote and lightly populated to matter.)
Adding density to parts of Queens and Brooklyn where it would introduce a tipping point in favor of walkable urbanism may well be harder than repealing landmark restrictions in the Village. Community boards are always drawn from the wealthier and more connected segments of society, and in those areas they invariably own a car. A new development in Flushing was saddled with extra parking, and NIMBYs all over outer-urban New York oppose dedicated bus lanes due to loss of car lanes.
The conclusion is that the alternatives to density increases in Manhattan are more parking garages all over the Outer Boroughs, and greenfield suburban development in the few parts of the suburbs in which there’s space (typically nowhere near rail). I’m all for walkable densification along outer ends of subway lines, or if commuter rail modernizes then also near train stations. Wake me up when that happens. Until then, the best approach is supporting political reforms to make both Manhattan densification and outer borough densification easier.