Friday, June 24, 2011

Glazer v. Glaeser on Density

I've been reading through Nathan Glazer's essay compilation "From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City," and want to excerpt the following couple paragraphs in light of Ed Glaeser's recent book, Triumph of the City:

"Most significant, designers failed to explore just what it is people find attractive in areas and buildings for whose design characteristics not much, if anything, can be said.  How often have we seen those pictures of endless Levittowns, little houses with scarcely grown trees spread out over the landscape, as horrible lessons to avoid?  And how often have we contrasted them – to their disadvantage – with gleaming visions of great towers?  Let us put aside for a moment the detailed economic arguments that justify density, and let us recognize that very often the overall cost of single-family homes packed closely, or apartments in low-rise buildings, would compare favorably with twenty-story apartment towers. ...

"Wherever social scientists examine these issues, they find a taste that architects on the whole do not find it interesting to satisfy, a taste for the low-rise, the small scale, the unit that gives some privacy, some access to the ground, a small piece of land wholly under one's control.  I am not, of course, describing a universal taste,  But for people raising children – and indeed many others – it is a near universal taste, if people have a choice.  Nor is there any reason to think that is is necessary or desirable that people be educated against that taste and develop a taste for a larger or gargantuan scale…"

This particular perspective represents, I think, one side of an ongoing split of opinion among "pro-urbanist" writers and thinkers.  On the one hand (at the risk of oversimplification, apologies if I have misrepresented), there is Ed Glaeser and others such as Matt Yglesias, Ryan Avent and Stephen Smith, who overall take an economically libertarian approach to urban density, opposing height limits and touting the benefits of increasing concentrations of jobs and residences in urban areas.  The advantages of an increase in density are always, or nearly always, understood to exceed those of restricting that density by regulation; or, put another way, that any artificial distortion in the market for the ownership and free development of land, however well intended, is likely to lead to economically inefficient outcomes.

On the other side are what I might call the "quality-of-life" urbanists, such as Christopher Alexander, who advocated a four-story height limit, and others including Glazer, Michael Mehaffy, Nikos Salingaros, Leon Krier and evidently David Sucher, who promote a view which, while considering economic arguments, gives equal attention to those which cannot be easily quantified.  The desire of families to live in single family or low-rise homes is accepted, the general dislike of living in tall apartments, where another choice is available, is acknowledged, and the task instead becomes one of finding the urban form which maximizes density while producing an environment pleasant enough that it does not send families fleeing for "Levittown" when the first child arrives.  If this task requires establishing height limits, then these limits will be considered, as will certain other forms of regulation.  

This of course an oversimplification of these two perspectives, but they have been contrasted recently (some of the finer distinctions are brought out in this article by Kaid Benfield, for example, and the recurring debates over the DC Height Act).  At the same time, both positions share a common dislike of other forms of regulation: excessively segregated zoning, mandatory low density development and so forth.  There may actually be more in common than not, with quibbles over certain issues interfering with agreement on other certain fundamental concerns. 

Related posts:  
More On Density


  1. "Density" these days is a buzzword that does not mean density, in terms of people-per-square-mile. Usually, it means very tall buildings. However, these tall buildings may or may not create higher density, depending basically on the footprint/land area ratio. It is quite common to have tall buildings but a low footprint/land area ratio of perhaps 10%. If you have a 25 story average building height and a 10% footprint ratio, which is quite common, this is no more dense than if you have a three-story average height and a 80% footprint ratio, which is also quite common.

    The City of Paris, the twenty arrondisements, is almost wholly within a Traditional City pattern of buildings no taller than about six stories. The population density is 54,000 people per square mile. The City of New York, the five boroughs, which is of course known for its skyscrapers, has a population density of 27,000 people per square mile.

    It is only half of Paris!

    Within Paris, some neighborhoods have densities of up to 110,000 people per square mile, although I should note that this probably reflects a residential concentration. So, the "not as dense" Traditional City format can support very high population densities.

    If you look at cities by population density, the most dense are generally not in a high-rise pattern, but rather more of a Traditional City pattern, although perhaps at a slightly higher overall height of about 8-10 stories or so. Manila, Philippines is #1 with a population density of 111,000 people per square mile. Bogor, Indonesia, is next at 104,000, and Titagarh, India comes in at 99,000. Delhi, India is at 75,000.

    So, I think there is a very large difference between a skyscraper pattern, such as what I call 20th Century Hypertrophism, and simple tall buildings themselves. I'll have some photos soon of Wall Street in New York, the actual street, where the buildings are very tall but the street is a pedestrian street, and rather pleasant (and a major tourist destination) although it remains quite Hypertrophic in scale. Automobiles have been banned from Wall Street -- it is a pedestrian-only environment.

    Also, there is a "can you top this" aspect to density these days, a backlash against the 2500 people per square mile typical of many suburbs. I'm not sure that density levels beyond that of Paris, around 50,000 people per square mile, confer any advantages.

  2. And now we should all take a moment to laugh at the Venus Project's concept drawings of a futuristic utopia:

    A fine example of making buildings bigger without actually increasing density.

  3. Why not leave it up to the market? Valuable land in desireable places will get high-rises, cheaper land will get low-rise. People will choose to live based on the balance between what they like and what they can afford.

    Architects should not decide how people live. Their job is to make sure the roof doesn't fall down.

  4. Nice idea to comment on these two different takes on density by "urbanists" -- and very clever, also, to frame it as a "pun" in terms of Glazer vs. Glaeser!

    I submit, however, that a very different -- and very important -- third point of view on density, one that has been erroneous confused with both Glazer (very commonly these days) and Glaeser (less commonly these days), has been overlooked: the Jane Jacobs viewpoint on density.

    While many people (especially these days) erroneously believe that Jane Jacobs is a proponent of low-rise type density, as both Nathan Glazer and Edward Glaeser seem to believe, this is a myth. This misunderstanding seems to grow out of the erroneous belief that Jacobs believed that all urban neighborhoods should be like Greenwich Village. This is untrue in at least two ways: 1) Jacobs did not believe all urban neighborhoods should be like Greenwich Village and 2) Greenwich Village actually has a fair number of high rise buildings.

    And, although Jacobs points out, like Glaeser, that very high densities are very beneficial to city districts (and actually only feasible, in most cases, with the construction of high rises), unlike Glaeser she also believes that a MIX of building types is important for the health of urban districts. Furthermore, since it appears that Glaeser (oddly) believes that low-rise neighborhoods should be allowed to protect themselves from high-rises -- this would seem to run counter, so it seems to me, to the following three beliefs of Jacobs:

    1) A mix of building types is important for urban health (including high-rises in low-rise neighborhoods);

    2) "In-between" densities (meaning, essentially nothing but low-rise urban buildings) is apt to be problematic for healthy urbanism;

    3) The overbuilding of already dense neighborhoods deprives those neighborhoods having "in-between densities of beneficial increases in densities.

    So, to sum up, the Jacobs viewpoint is similar to, but distinctly different from, both the the Glazer and Glazer viewpoints.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Friday, June 24, 2011, 8:40 p.m.

    P.S. -- While I usually like to cite quotes and page numbers, I don't have the materials handy at the moment. But most of the appropriate quotes can be easily found by reading Jacobs' chapter on the "Need for Concentration" in "Death and Life . . ." -- but be sure to read the whole chapter and the footnotes too.

  5. I think there is another aspect to the way in which the Jane Jacobs viewpoint differs from the viewpoints of both the Nathan Glazer camp and the Edward Glaeser camp.

    The viewpoint of the Nathan Glazer camp seems to me to be essentially an aesthetic one, based on personal preferences (i.e., the proponents of this viewpoint like low-rise cities, believing them to be "prettier" and "more humane"), and the proponents of this low-rise aesthetic want to push this preferences on other people.

    The viewpoint of the Edward Glaeser camp, on the other hand, seems to me to be essentially a narrowly-based economic one (i.e., high rises are, at least in a narrow economic sense, the most efficient way to "pack 'em in") and proponents want to push this ideology.

    Essentially, then, it's a "culture war" of personal likes and dislikes and value systems (i.e., aesthetics vs. [supposedly] economics).

    The Jacobs viewpoint, on the other hand, is basically a social scientific one concerned with understanding how cities grow and thrive or, instead, stagnate and decay. Although Jacobs has, obviously, personal likes and dislikes, she is NOT (contrary to myth) trying to push these likes and dislikes on others. Rather she is trying to understand how we can help those cities and those city districts that are "dying" and get them to thrive once again (i.e., the "Death and Life of Great American Cities").

    As Jacobs has pointed out herself, she is not discussing (at least in "Death and Life . . . ") what "should be" or "shouldn't be", but what works and what doesn't. So (at least in "Death and Life . . "), Jacobs seems to be expressing a "live and let live attitude" regarding various forms of human settlements.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Friday, June 24, 2011, 11:00 p.m.

    P.S. -- Please forgive various typos, especially the one in the last sentence of my previous post. It should have been "the Glazer and Glaeser viewpoints" (not "Glazer and Glazer").

    P.P.S. -- I haven't read the Nathan Glazer book in full (just skimmed parts), but from a panel discussion I attended where Glazer spoke, I got the impression that he was criticizing Jane Jacobs (whom he personally knew and helped early in her career, by the way) for clinging to, supposedly, a low-rise model. At that panel discussion, he seemed to see this as a supposed weakness of the Jacobs position.

    Perhaps, because I haven't read his book, I misunderstood what he was saying? Perhaps, instead, he was wistfully saying that clinging to a low-rise model is a regretful weakness of his own position?

  6. "But for people raising children – and indeed many others – it is a near universal taste, if people have a choice."

    Manhattan is undergoing an upper-class baby boom right now. Paris's rich live in the city proper, often in rented apartments, in buildings they (gasp) share with other people. And in Tel Aviv, the super-rich live in ugly towers in parks; the merely upper-middle-income live in four-story garden city apartment buildings.

    Whenever people talk of universal tastes for things that people with choices frequently eschew around the world, my immediate thought is that it's no different from the schools and crime fallacy, which posits that because central cities were ridden with crime and bad schools for a few decades of American history, suburbs universally have better schools and are safer.

    P.S. For the record, comparing Paris to any other municipality is a dirty trick worthy of Wendell Cox. Paris has a tightly drawn municipal boundary; of course it's going to look hyper-dense, never mind that the Petite Couronne is less dense than New York, and New York has higher perceived density in its metro area using a not particularly apples-to-apples computation (13,000/km^2 in Greater New York on the census tract level vs. 10,000 in Ile-de-France on the municipality/quartier level).

  7. A look at the jobs+housing density of DC area neighborhoods shows that traditional historical neighborhoods often have higher density than newer neighborhoods with taller buildings. See The Density of Traditional Urbanism.

    Much of this has to do with excessive amounts of land devoted to automobiles in newer neighborhoods and edge cities - very wide streets, surface parking, parking decks, and so on. Also, the suburban mindset tends to persist in the form of large setbacks, berms, buffers, etc., as regulations enforce a tower-in-the-park ideal.

    Those who advocate no height limits respond to this by observing that DC's neighborhoods of detached houses and townhouses are relatively fixed, and any redevelopment is necessarily going to be focused on a few parcels on major streets and near transit. Thus the need for towers to achieve any appreciable density.

    Quality of life urbanism must include the importance of design. Mid-rise buildings can be pretty awful and anti-urban if designed poorly, and towers can be reasonably livable if designed well and set in a good planning framework. In general my experience is that mid-rise neighborhoods are more pleasant and livable than high-rise neighborhoods, but towers such as those in downtown San Diego or Vancouver aren't unpleasant.

  8. Nathan and Alon: Regardless of the method of comparison, is there really any serious doubt that New York and Paris are at least of comparable population density? I’m not entirely sold on the perceived density measure, either, I’ll admit, as it seems to reward very high-density centers surrounded by low-density sprawl at the expense of cities of consistent moderate density – the type of analysis that could favor New York over Paris.

    Vince: Never saw that before -- I guess the 1920s never ended for some people, from a planning perspective.

    Cambias: To provide an answer to that question, I’d point you to the writings of the people I’ve mentioned, in particular Mehaffy’s article which is an excellent starting point as it covers both the quality of life and economic angles.

    Benjamin: Thanks for your comments. Jacobs’ omission from the second group was intentional. I don’t believe her views can be easily pigeonholed, and I think your summary of her intent in “Death and Life” ("she is not discussing ... what "should be" or "shouldn't be", but what works and what doesn't") is very nicely stated. Glaeser’s misinterpretation of Jacobs’ argument, by the way, was in the below article, not his book (although for all I know it is in there also):

    Laurence: Thanks for that link. I agree the design element is important here in terms of making tall buildings livable. Even so, with regard to skyscrapers, in virtually all North American cities their impact as a residential option is vanishingly small. A couple months back I put up a post noting how less than 1 in 100 New Yorkers lives above the 20th story, and I wonder what the equivalent figure would be for Vancouver or San Diego. Their presence on the skyline is dominant, but from the air, looking at the city as a whole, they appear almost insignificant – even Vancouver’s downtown, small as it is in relation to the city as a whole, is mostly mid-rise apartments. The city is overwhelmingly SFDR. Yet those (relatively) few skyscrapers have a strong impact on the feel of the city, and color people’s attitudes toward the concept of “density.”

    If it’s possible to obtain 3/4 the density in a form that’s acceptable to a majority of people, rather than something that will be opposed tooth and nail, that’s not a bad tradeoff in my opinion.

  9. [This is a revised version of a comment that didn't seem to go through. Please forgive if it winds ups as a double post. Thanks!]


    Charlie wrote:

    Regardless of the method of comparison, is there really any serious doubt that New York and Paris are at least of comparable population density?

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    It seems to me that comparing Paris, the municipality, to New York CITY, the municipality, produces a statistic that is irrelevant at best, and misleading at worst, in terms of most current discussions about density. New York CITY not only has areas that are urban and quasi-urban, but areas that are semi-suburban, suburban and, even, nearly rural, too. I assume Paris may also have such less dense areas also, but doing an overall comparison of the two, then misleadingly boils down to which city has more rural, suburban and semi-suburban areas than the other -- which isn't really relevant or useful to most discussions of density. This seems to me to be a instance where aggregate data provides a meaningless or misleading statistic.

    On the other hand, comparing Paris, the center of the region (pop. 2,193,031 in 40.7 sq. mi), to Manhattan, the center of the region (pop. 1,585,873 in 23 sq. mi.) is probably more to the point.

    However, even more meaningful and useful, I submit, is a discussion and comparison of particular urban districts in one city to other particular urban districts in the other city, such as the densest districts (individually) of Manhattan to the densest districts (individually) of Paris. And maybe comparing the contiguous grouping of the densest districts of one with the other.

    Also, as Jane Jacobs would be likely to point out, it's important to remember that residential density isn't the only density that is important either. So it's also important to look at the density of manufacturing and commerce too.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sun., June 26, 2011, 9:05 p.m.

  10. PART TWO

    Charlie wrote:

    Jacobs’ omission from the second group [the Glaeser group] was intentional. I don’t believe her views can be easily pigeonholed . . .

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    I'm not sure if I understand your comment here. While I certainly agree that Jacobs' views can't be easily pigeonholed, that's essentially the point of my comment: that there are the low-rise advocates; that there are the high-rise advocates; and that there is Jane Jacobs, who advocates a MIX of low-rise and high-rise -- this being a third category (and, I submit, a very important one, too).

    Plus, it is highly inaccurate, so it seems to me, to pigeonhole Jacobs into the first category "by default" (by leaving her out of the second category) because Jacobs has many similarities with the second category and many differences with the first category.

    Charlie wrote:

    Glaeser’s misinterpretation of Jacobs’ argument, by the way, was in the below article, [but, perhaps] not [necessarily in] his book (although for all I know it is in there also):

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    While I haven't read the book, given what Glaeser has said in various interviews (while promoting the book), and given his other writings during the last two years on the subjects covered in the book, I would be surprised if it isn't part of the book also.

    For those who are interested in a detailed analysis of 1) Glaeser's misunderstanding of Jacobs work and 2) how this misunderstanding has weakens his own work (in my opinion), look in the comments section of the Glaeser article. I have two comments. The first one deals with Glaeser's misunderstanding of Jacobs' work, and this comment is towards the middle section of the comments (when the comments are filtered in chronological order). The second comment deals with how his misunderstanding of Jacobs work has, in my opinion, weakened his own work, and it is towards the end of the comments section.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sun., June 26, 2011, 9:10 p.m

  11. Charlie: yes, I agree on that point. The reason I'm mentioning it is that the correct geography to compare Paris to is Manhattan, not New York City as a whole.

    More on this soon on my blog, but the residential urban form in Manhattan is not that different from in Paris. Manhattan has more commercial skyscrapers, but its residential urban form has few buildings (other than towers in parks) that have more than ten floors - and those buildings are concentrated in the UES and the UWS, precisely those districts with higher density than anything in Paris.

  12. Benjamin -- sorry about the comments -- the spam filter catches them occasionally but does not notify me, so I'm often unaware when it happens. Anyways it looks like you were able to repost the bulk of what was caught.

    As to the NY-Paris comparison, I think you are correct that a Paris-Manhattan comparison would be a bit more accurate, for which we get:

    Manhattan: 68,951/sq. mi.
    Paris: 53,883/sq. mi.

    Still reasonably close considering the difference in form, and when we consider Manhattan is 1) an island, which should inflate densities compared to an inland city like Paris, which has more room to grow outward, 2) the center of a much bigger metro area and 3) a far outlier among American cities. Or, we could simply compare on an area-consistent basis, using New York's densest 40.7 square miles against Paris' (adding 17.7 square miles of Brooklyn to Manhattan's 23):

    New York: 54,306
    Paris: 53,883

    So I think Nathan's point still stands here, that the traditional city is capable of producing at least the same (residential) densities as the densest 19th century industrial city, if not more. The question of whether, overall, New York is "denser" than Paris is probably unanswerable or will depend upon the viewpoint of the person answering the question (perceived density? proportion of people living at urban densities? gross density? scaled for size of metro area? etc.).

    As for the "pigeonholed" comment, all I meant was that I did not believe that Jacobs belonged in the "quality of life" group, as someone like Glaeser might have though to put her given his comments in his essay, for some of the same reasons you mentioned. I think we're in general agreement here.

    Alon: Thanks for the comment -- looking forward to your forthcoming post.

  13. It came out more combative than intended.

    Let me add just one thing here: Paris is hypertrophic, even more so than portrayed in my post. Go to Google Earth, find the Place de la Nation, and measure the widths of the streets coming out of it. One goes above 80 meters (and when I was last there, a year ago, it was walkable), and several more are in the 35-40 range.

    Both Manhattan and Paris are outliers as far as density is concerned - nowhere else in the developed world except Hong Kong is there such a large cluster with residential densities continuously above 20,000 per km^2.

  14. Charlie wrote:

    . . . sorry about the comments -- the spam filter catches them occasionally but does not notify me . . .

    Benjamin writes:

    No problem! Actually, this is helping me get a better idea of how these spam filters work.

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Charlie wrote:

    . . . I think you are correct that a Paris-Manhattan comparison would be a bit more accurate, for which we get:

    Manhattan: 68,951/sq. mi.
    Paris: 53,883/sq. mi.

    Still reasonably close considering . . . .

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    Is Paris a relatively low-rise city that is nevertheless extremely dense? Yes, of course it is! (So basically we are in agreement, here, I believe.)

    Nevertheless, I think it greatly overstates the case -- and needlessly muddies the issues (and also uses statistics incorrectly) -- to imply that when the built form of Paris is compared to that of "New York" (which inevitably brings to mind Manhattan even when expressly stated otherwise, since Manhattan is what people are really interested in) that

    a) the built form of "Paris" is actually denser than that of "New York"; or

    b) that the built forms of Paris and "New York" are almost equal in density; or

    c) even that the built form of Paris is reasonably close to the built form of Manhattan in density. (For the record, comparing Paris to Manhattan, we see that the difference in residential density, 15,068 people per sq. mi., is more than 20% of Manhattan's 68,951 people per square mile. It seems to me that 20% is not really reasonably close. And this leaves out, of course, space devoted to manufacturing, commerce, non-profit institutions, etc.)

    Without going into the details of why I don't think the qualifiers mentioned are useful, I think it's just simpler, more accurate and, overall, more to the point, to say that Paris is a city that nicely demonstrates that a relatively low-rise settlement can be very dense -- and to leave it at that. I think the rest (i.e., inappropriate comparisons with "New York") just misleads and muddies the discussion.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Mon., June 27, 2011,9:20 p.m.

  15. Hi Benjamin,

    I purposefully compared the City of Paris and New York City, saying that New York City "is known for its skyscrapers" but actually has half the population density within the City itself. Only a rather small portion of New York City, about half of Manhattan, is built to very high density. Most of the city consists of a 19th Century Hypertrophic pattern, of about 3-6 story building height and very wide streets. The point is, when people think of "high density" they think of New York, the whole thing, as in "like New York," whether good or bad. But in fact this pattern in its entirety, including a central area of rather tall buildings and a surrounding area of a mostly 19th Century Hypertrophic pattern of about 3-6 stories high is, in its entirety, not very dense.

  16. Hi Nathan!

    If I understand you correctly, you are saying in your last comment that the purpose of comparing the City of Paris to all of New York City in your first comment was to point out that all of New York City, and even all of Manhattan, is not as densely built up as a few unusually high-density, high-rise (and famous) parts of Manhattan. While I would agree with this statement, that's not what seems to be coming across.

    And in any case, I'm not sure if I see the relevance of such a comment to Charlie's original post which, as I see it, is about what various urbanists believe to be the best approach to creating high-densities (e.g., low-rise, high-rise, or, unmentioned by Charlie, "mixed-rise").

    So it still seems to me that that part of the comment is a poor use of statistics and misleads and muddies the "real" discussion (which is about the low-rise, high-rise and "mixed-rise" districts themselves -- not about which predominate).

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wednesday, June 29, 2011, 9:55 p.m.

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