The word density has a negative connotation in today’s English language. Dieters try to steer clear of dense calories, which means more calories per bite. For something to be dense or to have density means it has compactness and mass, and therefore it is heavy. If you call someone dense, you are saying their brains are thick and slow, meaning that thoughts have a hard time getting through. Is it small wonder then that any hint of moderate density development is a sure fire way to solicit outcries of concern about increased traffic and congestion with all of those cars rolling in when a new high rise goes up.
The truth is that moderate density development is “smart development”… and smart city planning.
The irony is that study after study show that well-planned moderate density cities reduce the need for cars, save money for city governments and its citizens, is healthier for all in many ways, and in fact is safer with fewer automobile accidents and deaths. In renown American city planner and urban designer, Jeff Speck’s book, “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” he proves how the “best economic strategy for a city is not the old-fashioned way” with clusters of separated industrial parks distant suburbs and divided living and working areas, but to “become a place where people want to be,” as in live, work, and play in close, walkable proximity.
To see Jeff Speck’s excellent 15 minute TED talk on this subject, click here.
Our daughter, Courtney, is a young attorney in Washington, DC., who doesn’t own a car, walks eight minutes to work each day and walks down the street to the grocery store. She uses free bikes and scooters, and when she needs a car to go outside of the District, she rents one.
Cities like Portland, Oregon, are leading the way by example for the rest of the country. Years ago, they adopted the “skinny street” program at a time when other cities were widening theirs. Portland invested two-million dollars a year in carving out bike paths. It has spent some $60 million dollars making their downtown “walkable” by building wide sidewalks and encouraging the development of apartment and condominium buildings, and office towers. The verifiable result is that their citizens drive 20-percent less than the rest of the country. Not surprisingly, Portland is also considered one of the fittest cities in the country.
When we live close enough so that we can walk instead of drive to work, school, or to the grocery store, our health improves. Back in the 1970’s, one in ten Americans was obese. Now it’s one in three Americans. Diabetes is taking a stranglehold on the country. Jeff calls it an “urban design crisis” and says that the inactivity that results from long commutes riding in cars is “born of our landscape” of suburban design. In other words, our cars are killing us. Studies show that where we live can predict to some extent our lifespan. Cases of asthma in America have tripled since the 90’s, a result of car exhaust. When you sit in your car driving hours back and forth to work from the suburbs into the business core, you are breathing in exhaust. Cities that plan growth around pedestrians have far fewer accidental deaths from collisions with vehicles than cities that plan growth around vehicles.
Our cities are evolving before our very eyes. You might consider the traffic and congestion you see now as growing pains that will eventually go away as cities invest in the needed infrastructure to make their downtown corridors truly walkable with great and affordable places to live, great places to work, and to eat, shop and socialize.
I invite you to watch our 60-second video in which I speak on the coming of age and return to the urban core for the next generation of workers and also retirees. This is a fascinating topic that is happening now across our country and is the topic of conversation among those who are involved in planning for the future of our great cities.