Not Fixing, Finding

Low Density is a Stall

The American roadway landscape is built to encourage a stop every few hundred yards with big bright signs to mark the spot. Yet, stretching from old places to new, thousands of Dads, Moms, and teens drive long distances to buy the basics, have some fun, and make sure the kids attend the new schools marketed as wonders. Calling these areas “sprawl” or spread cities made of “ticky-tacky” has not been helpful. Sure, sprawl has contributed to higher taxes, unfair subsidies, smooth roads that get old fast, real estate warfare, and super-short-term thinking. The contest for blaming the powerful for their mistakes yields few winners and inadequate remediation. It should be called the genius of America’s urbanization century – 1950 to 2050. The only mistake will be if this special genius finds itself unable to stop the irresistible urge to squeeze out a few more decades of extraordinary growth without reflection.

Getting Some “There-in-There”

The fast cash flow generated by single-family buildings won. The argument for higher density, inclusive urban development, and transit-based places was lost. Whether the consequences are intended, communities would be built on zones that separate buildings by type/price and land. Zoning remains a “police power” and assumes it is possible to know where everything belongs. Therefore, it attempts to organize space appropriately within the market framework of demand. The complicated challenges of maintaining health, safety, happiness, and the general welfare in response to it stand well in practice and law. However, for any portion of the next century of this power to succeed, it needs to refocus on centers that reduce the use of energy with renewable efficiency.From simple sidewalks to complicated trains, planes, and automobiles, connecting services to urban centers is well known. All efficient central energy systems require, after that, is are destinations to power trade and services

Planning and public utility commissioners struggle to find, let alone build, routes to clean water and power. A long list of demands ranges from expanding bandwidth to preventing the platting for thousands of homes in floodplains and up the sides of mountains. In the twilight of low-cost money, where do cities belong?

Modest exceptions to boom/bust occur in places like New York City because they exhibit near recession-proof growth. NYC’s population exceeds previous decennial highs adding more new housing units than the decade prior. Even after the housing debacle of 2008, New York City’s production bounced back to 10,000 per year within four years. By 2015 presents a five-fold increase. Dense urban places abound in NYC. They are where people want and need to be.

The foundation of NYC’s resilience builds on the preparations for endurance. Resilience is the expression of the unrelenting demand for accurate measures that will assure the promise of sustainability. Overall, New York City needs to produce an average annual production of 20,000 homes to keep pace with population growth and to replace aging units. New York City averaged 23,000 units annually, from 2000 to 2010, thanks to well warmed residential building boom during the latter half of the decade. This astounding figure is from the New York Building Congress (charts above and below). The 2020 COVID-19 tragedy is expected to slow new construction as the market begins to correct for the rebound in supply. The impact will be similarly dire. However, NYC proves that it prepares and responds well to the demand for endurance.  

New Housing Units Constructed in New York City

Suburban “empty nest” investors produce a unique portion of the demand for housing for two reasons. First, new York is a city of universities and colleges. A significant facet of this group buy apartments for their grad/undergrad children, some with the expectation of moving in with the kids after getting their degrees – a lovely irony. The other reason is the quality of services available in a dense urban environment for an aging population. As urban investment trends converge, new low-density “fix” issues will emerge. It is relatively easy if transit-oriented development (TOD) acquires priority attention in legislation.

The Highway and Transportation Funding Act of 2015-16 sent a new message with $33.5 billion for highways (Critique). Mass transit was authorized for train control (funding did not happen). At the same time, roads and bridges leading to failing shopping malls would be smoothed, repaired. The gas tax stayed low, and so did formula grants for public transportation. By 2020, the US Department of Transportation would receive $86.2 billion, decreasing the 2019 enacted level.  The 2020 bill sustained $49.3 billion for the Federal Highway Administration, $17.6 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration, $12.9 billion for the Federal Transit Administration, $2.8 billion for the Federal Railroad Administration

The bottom line on burb fixing is straightforward. Support the anti-growth advocates outside of the city in low-density areas. They are the greatest allies for the dynamic economic success of dense urban cores like NYC.

The suburbs do better with less low-density growth and regional policies that support dense clusters connected to several transit systems. In this model, dense urban areas serve unlimited growth potential through innovation. It also preserves the quiet elegance of single-family communities that want to remain that way.

Unlike outlying jurisdictions, the city can deploy several sophisticated methods to resolve immediate problems. One unusual component will be the advent of congestion pricing in Manhattan. It will demand trade-off improvements in subway transit.

Managing the waste of dense areas is another good way to prove this argument correct. Waste is a resource when it becomes containable and therefore manageable. Systems for this began a half-century ago. A New York City precedent dates to 1975 when all the waste of Roosevelt Island (pop. about 12,000) went into a pipe for off-island treatment (see pg.  ). Roosevelt Island and Disneyworld remain the two most critical city-scale systems in the US.1 [i] The alternative is to sustain existing uncontained management systems and await failure.

  1. Boulder’s experience in the late summer flooding of 2013 cost $2 billion as one example on an extended global list, with the German River Floods of 2013 the most spectacular.
  2. Hurricane Sandy (October 2012) cost $50 billion.

The single most significant public cost associated with these tragedies was removing an enormous amount of waste from the damage caused by these events. These costs alone produced index-based insurance (IBI) system that could improve insurance density when developed as an alternative to damage-based insurance (DBI).

Costs and Burdens

When Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future combined to describe a problem, they could not fix it. But have known well for a half-century. Their collaborators focused on the relationship between density and road infrastructure in New Jersey. (See pdf Report)

In 1974, The Cost of Sprawl published by the Real Estate Research Corporation proved infrastructure in low-density development costs more than compact, dense products. The following example covers the main point, but there is a little surprise inside.

“A neighborhood with a total density of 50 residents and employees per acre (or 32,000 per square mile, is typical of the density in the municipalities of Hudson County. The development requirement is the public provision of 130 square feet of road per resident and employee.

What would the requirement be if residents and employees were in a lower-density pattern, of say, five residents and employees per acre or 3,200 per square mile?

Examples of sub-division and office-park are East Brunswick, Plainsboro, Scotch Plains, Cinnaminson, and Moorestown. In this case, the road area per capita would increase to an estimated 423 square feet—more than three times as much.”

NJ is the densest suburban state in the US, with a high property and income tax. The political problem, however, is not taxes. Instead, it describes the lack of policy change on the density and the distribution of maintenance resources.

This example stares NJs’ multiple jurisdictions in the face. Sure, urban density costs less, and infrastructure continues to cost more to maintain. Still, the opposition to equitable distribution is obstructed. The political interests of the places mentioned above are not diametrically opposite. They may even be racially and economically diverse, but one thing is clear, there are more of them than of the others (squeaky wheels and all). The studies by Smart Growth American on the fiscal implications of sprawl reveal this condition in many cities.  Madison, WI, West Des Moines, IA, and Macon, GA are good examples.2

The city with density exports knowledge capital throughout the world. One indicator is the consumption of more resources and more waste than low-density areas. Still, when the population density per square mile is near or above 40,000, resource use is proportionately less per person. The trend in waste/energy management advances toward an overall reduction.3 Given modest knowledge of the details involved, ongoing steps toward energy conservation and waste management are growing.  Is this data good enough to make the dense city more sustainable than a house in the woods? What are the measures?

Aside from counting carbon molecules as a measure of environmental stability and assigning a portion to cities, measuring urban areas’ energy/material input and outputs leads to practical life cycle assessments (LCA). Urban metabolism (UM) metaphors and LCA analysis strengthen urban policies. Combining consumption outputs with socioeconomic data builds an accurate environmental urban footprint and explains the shoe size.4 Getting a life cycle metabolism is among many reasons for setting an urban shoe size, but two are preeminent.

  1. Getting to know cities like your skin. And know it is vulnerable to external conditions.
  2. Thousands of species face extinction if cities do not find a way to decrease global temperature toward the high and low end.

Land development is a precise measure in that every square foot is unique. Climate change or extreme weather with a rising sea is not the biggest threat to biodiversity and its promises.  These perils are caused by the amount of land taken for urban development. Food claims about 40% of the Earth’s land and every gallon of freshwater possible, and all of the global ocean.

The demand for food is likely to double by 2050. It logically leads to increases in fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modified (GMO.) seeds. The dangerous experiment is presuming all GMOs are unavailable in Europe. Leaving the United States, Africa, Asia, and South America as a laboratory. Using Europe as a “control” is probably wise, but not enough.

False Consumption Extinction

Take two and call in the morning

As the 21st century began, the Earth’s sixth great extinction was seen as a prospect without probability.5 However, two proofs can counter the ambiguity. First, human social, economic, and technical progress can avert catastrophes. Second, the best environment for high-quality technological advancement is a dense urban environment – the best place for the continuous development of knowledge capital.

At the close of the century, the World Watch Institute’s call to “minimize consumption” and “maximize well-being” sent a clear message with the fewest words. Dense environments can reduce consumption — per cap/per km/per day –24/7/365. The city alters the structure of consumption on many levels. How can it become possible to create a renewed sense of abundance in life using the implied constraints?

Urbanization takes about a third of the Earth’s surface and about forty percent for food. The remaining twenty-plus percent is the trickiest as an assortment of fragmented spatial leftovers.6 Beyond deserts and high mountain ranges, there are seeds for change, thousands of accessible places, the wild glory of Alaska, and “parks” from New York City’s Central Park all the way to Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. But, unfortunately, the policy governing this 20% tends to give “the wilderness” a boundary and, most irritating of all ignores the simplicity of our need for it as unfragmented land.

The name John Muir is synonymous with the importance of wilderness.  The tool was to be conservation, but today the river that cut the Grand Canal no longer reaches the ocean. Muir put it this way, the wilderness is the only way to look directly into the face of God and like it. He could not have imagined we would turn that privilege into our weakest link in an already ineffectual land-use policy.

The Future by Al Gore follows An Inconvenient Truth in a similar vein. But, again, we need the means to assess global impacts. In his second book, six “drivers of global change” are primarily responsible for the inconvenience of the truth. They are:

  • 1) global economies are facilitated by what Glaeser called the “death of distance.”
  • 2) light-speed communication through the Internet and how this shift in communication speed alters our
  • 3) the perception of power is thereforee allters three other drivers see growth as a problem and that
  • 4) a re-sequencing of growth toward renewable systems will be essential,
  • 5) concern regarding the unknowns of genetic manipulation will rise and lastly
  • 6) the implications of science portends – a radically changing interface of humans to the natural world.

The next series prompts are locations. They call for a look into the history of urban design and development in search of new ways to look forward with these six points in mind.7

  1. Source: The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation of the State of New York See:
  2. This was posted Fiscal Implications Analysis, New Jersey and tagged Coalition, Coalition Members, Fiscal Implications of Development Patterns, New Jersey, New Jersey Future, The Innovative DOT. Posted by 2015 (here)
  3. Glaeser E and Kahn M (2010) The greenness of cities: carbon dioxide emissions and urban development J. Urban Econ. 67 404–18 and Norman J, MacLean H. L. and Kennedy C. A. 2006 Comparing high and low residential density: life-cycle analysis of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions J. Urban Plan. Dev. 132 10–21
  4. The energy/waste paradigm is in dense areas. New York waste management professionals have long preferred production systems based on recycling because it creates waste streams for analysis. The “energy/waste problem” also offers a list of substantial “life-cycle” advantages over systems based on production without this approach. This is a step preferable to the unknowns of incineration or landfill. A key to understanding waste down to the molecular level in the European Union’s creation of REACH – the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH). It will require companies to register all chemicals they place on the market in amounts above one metric ton. Reference to the EDF papers here:
    • Also see: “Quantification of urban metabolism through coupling with the life cycle assessment framework: concept development and case study” Source: and Emmanuel, R. M. (2005) and Stone, B.; Hess, J. J.; Frumkin, H. (2010) who research density in detail related to extreme weather.  Source: “Urban form and extreme heat events: are sprawling cities more vulnerable to climate change than compact cities?”  Source: School of City and Regional Planning, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia, USA   See:
  5. Barnosky AD et al. (2011) Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471:51-57 doi:10.1038/nature09678
  6. SLAP = space leftover after planning
  7. Researchers have long recognized the environmental and fiscal benefits of residential density. Such development requires less infrastructure and fewer city services per capita and tends to promote less auto-dependency and lower energy demands in general (Glaeser 2000; Holtzclaw et al. 2002). The added supply of higher densities may also help meet affordability concerns and advances in the application of sustainable development practices can slow or reduce maintenance, operating and construction costs gave a full cost accounting of environmental factors. Even though it remains difficult to provide affordable housing in existing New York City the provision of dense high quality housing encourages increased social and economic diversity.

Writers Resources

The urban problem as it is defined today is not correct. The quality of life in distinct urban formations is good but flawed in a growing number of unseen, and unrealized ways. It will be experienced until it is too late, as tragic as an “active shooter” at a local high school, and as unforgivable as decades of lead poisoning in a community.

The goals for change remain undefined, and the objectives required lack measures of accomplishment. Without them, a strategic response is not possible, nor are the policies required to implement projects or set priorities for effective deployment in the world.

When bringing a project forward, we say that “no one is as smart as all of us.” One of the great proofs of this is how the WordPress open source business model has people building websites and blog communications by the millions. The “all of us” that exists, in this case, is the small group of people who began WordPress and added thousands of partners and participants happy to grow and to work free to the edge.

SiteGround is the server/host of this site.  It is a bit more nimble and proud to focus its expertise on WordPress installations and other resources to facilitate the integration of technical services that support website content integration—as for this effort, recognized it as a host within a host within a host.  Like matryoshka, it is one doll inside the other. Combined, they can be seen as small groups making a change. The experience of opening one leads to another. Each change can be for good or ill. That is the only way change occurs. The single idea is to outnumber and to exceed with reliable, sustainable transitions.

Hosting a Knowledgebase

The Report requests contributions of research on problems emerging in the Anthropocene. It will focus on urban formations and density. It will be necessary to dig into the psychology of this urbanization process before the nesting damage to the host known to us as “the earth” becomes unchangeable. All the data in the world will be unhelpful without small groups of people involved in every aspect of life’s data can make degradation reversible and do so persuasively.

Themes and Articles

  • The first order of business is to be comfortable with participation by aligning your interests answering a few questions for organizing ourselves with an Abstract Submission Form (here).
  • One of the questions in this form is about technical contributions (SQL, PHP, etc.) to managing content. The SiteGround Knowledgebase is available for review

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