Density is nothing to fear. When done right, it not only fights sprawl but improves your community
One of the most widespread, and sadly mistaken, myths about our environment is that living “close to nature” out in the country or in a leafy suburb is the best “green” lifestyle. Cities, on the other hand, are often viewed as a major cause of ecological destruction—artificial, crowded places that suck up precious resources.
Yet, when you look at the facts, nothing could be farther from the truth. Life in the country and most suburbs involves long hours in the automobile each week, burning fuel and spewing exhaust to get to work, buy groceries and drive the kids around. City dwellers, on the other hand, have the option of walking or taking transit. It’s clear that the future of the Earth depends on more people gathering together in compact communities.
DEFENDERS OF WILD PLACES, SUCH AS THE CASCADE LAND CONSERVANCY in Washington State, now make this a key point of their environmental work. Gene Duvernoy, the group’s president, presented a powerful slide show about sprawl in the Seattle area to a group of local civic leaders convened by PPS. He forcefully drove home the point that if people don’t feel satisfied and excited about the places they live now, then suburban development will continue its destructive march right up into the foothills of the lovely Cascade Mountains.
His message was clear: If you love nature, then you have a stake in making sure people love cities, too.
Of course, an urban address doesn’t automatically mean a green way of life. Too many cities, in fact, are modeling themselves on suburbs by fostering auto-dependent, spread-out, sprawl-happy development. Their zoning codes actually prohibit neighborhood stores, apartments, businesses without parking lots and other of the great things that make cities both vibrant and environmentally-friendly.
THESE KIND OF BAD CHOICES in cities and suburbs are driven by a desperate fear of density. What “density” actually means is “compact” or “urban," but its meaning has been twisted in a way to imply horrible traffic, soulless high-rises and social breakdown. Many otherwise intelligent Americans believe denser development will mean slums, pollution and descending property values in their neighborhood.
It’s important to note that many of the most beloved places around the world are really quite dense—Paris, Sydney, the hill towns of Tuscany, Savannah, old Santa Fe, most historic neighborhoods, charming small towns, and even Disneyland once you get inside the gates. We spend a lot of money and precious vacation time to visit these places—which shows us that, done right, density becomes a great community’s asset.
The problem is that almost everyone can readily point to a place where density was not done right. And in nearly every case, what bothers us is not the density of human beings but the density of cars. The starting point of any effort to make your neighborhood more compact and “green” is to put cars in their place. That doesn’t mean you need to ban them (although car-free communities are a growing trend in Europe); simply stop accommodating their needs every inch of the way. Put pedestrians first, and you’ll have a neighborhood that grows more lively and appealing to everyone.
When increased urban density reflects a strong sense of Placemaking and has been created with full participation of the people living in that community, then the results become a great place to live, work and play.