Density is Not a Quality of Life Issue; Well it Shouldn't be Anyway …

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Too often, I think pundits like to point to cities that have a high population density and make a correlation between that population density and the quality of life in the city.  But no one likes to talk about the reasons why cities are densely populated in the first place.  Cities built on islands are often land locked, as is the case in New York City.  That is a city that is built on islands that was quickly inhabited in a short period of time.

The city went about the business of burying a subway underneath vital parts of the city before things got entirely out of hand.  The city has also underwent more than a few population surges over the years and like most Northern cities, lost population in the sixties.  The diversification of the city is one of the reasons why it continues to grow.  It has also become what you find when you look up urban in the dictionary.

But people quickly forget that the most dense construction is in Manhattan, not throughout the entire city.  Other boroughs are densely populated, but few have high rises that are anything like what you find in Manhattan.  That is changing though, with high rises going up in Brooklyn and Queens towering over the rest of the city.  Even Staten Island has a 20 floor complex.

Pundits would like to see every city have thousands of high rises, as is the case in cities like New York and Chicago.  But there are more than a few obstacles to building high rises.  The technology exists to build a high rise pretty much where you want to build one.  But they cost a lot of money, and you need to make sure that there are enough people around to ensure the sustainability and viability of such projects. The days of building high rises out of necessity, because you simply had that many people moving into your city, are far removed.  These days high rises are built because they are viewed as a way to make a city more modern, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, all of which are terrible reasons.

Coming from the Midwest, I was fascinated by high rises but never understood this morbid, incestuous, lust that people have for that type of construction on the East Coast.  I simply figured that where it was feasible and practical for them to exist, they would, and where they would not, they did not.  Most high rises where I was from were not glamorous at all.  They were old structures, some of which were low income housing, elderly housing, or antiquated hotels that had lived past their prime.  Most banks would house regional or corporate headquarters there, but they weren’t the end all to be all that people make them out to be.

When I finally did visit New York City, it wasn’t the high rises that impressed me.  It was the fact that you could not see to the end of a street with the naked eye.  It was the fact that the sidewalks were as wide as a small road in places, the energy, the fact that you are walking somewhere in a crowd of hundreds of people.  You do not need high rises for this.  The arts are great in that town, and it is cool to sit back and watch people if you are too broke to do anything else and the mixture of people from all over the world is nice, but the high rises are the last thing on my list.  I do not need buildings with 100 floors.  When I was in Washington DC, the buildings had fewer than 20 floors and I was content.

What I like about the city is the energy and the flow of the place; urban construction is nice, dense construction is nice, but you do not need buildings with more than 20 floors in order achieve those ends.  It is not as though pundits want those high rises for the poor and the middle class, they want it for themselves to pretend that they are in high profile cities like New York, London and Paris without actually living there.  If your city does not have that high profile with plenty of millionaires like you would find in New York what is the point of that construction?  If people cannot afford to pay $2,000 a month for rent, as one would expect with new high rise construction what is the point of it all?

If a city is already built out to the edge the natural conclusion is that high rise construction would occur somewhere other than downtown.  But if the city has plenty of vacancies, as the cities around here do, there is no reason to build up.  The only place the cities should build up are no vacant lots where there is plenty of room for both the building and a parking garage.  But projects in impoverished neighborhoods, such as the plan that Norfolk had for building a new house for the STOP organization, do not make a lot of sense.  The city refuses to build high rise hotels in Ocean View to compliment the few buildings that are there and instead decided to allow people to build houses upwards of a half million dollars but would rather build up somewhere that is not contiguous with downtown where office space does not already exist.

The transformation of Ocean View could have been complete but the cultural and socioeconomic differences between those that already lived there and those that moved in could not be any more profound.  It was too ambitious, and too much in too short of a period of time.  When the cities can get businesses and people to move into the vacancies that already exist they can start to build vertically.  Ultimately though it all comes down to economics; if the cities think that they can make more money off of the land through a new use the construction is inevitable, even if imminent domain needs to be used.  Regardless of how much money switches hands, these new buildings do not make the city urban; it is the mindset and the culture of the place that gives it that feel.  At the same time what passes for urban in one city is not the standard that other cities should be held up to …


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