Density Prioritized

Sure of What?

The Wilderness

The reuse of the nearly indestructible detritus of industrial civilization described by Mike Reynolds (see pp xx) examines critical short-term problems. Part of his definition is the continuing extraction of the wanted from the unwanted. A change toward matter’s re-engineering (or bio-engineering) will make both infinitely recyclable, just like the wilderness. A new pathway recognizes human dependence on two distinct environments — one created by the slight change problem – sustaining a competitive market share model that fuels the possibility of exponential growth. The big change problem creates the other environment. This one occurs without human input or cause. It is old and slow. It leaves the exponents of minor changes that are a cause for concern without meaning. It threatens the return of the wilderness.

Exposed In 1996, when Thomas Fisher was the editor of Progressive Architecture, he gave a keynote to a conference of planners and architects.2  I asked him to answer one question, “What is progressive about architecture?” The theme of the meeting concerned the relationship of architecture to poverty. He agreed to keynote our gathering and opened with a story about the exponential growth of industries such as steel, oil, and gas in the early stages of the 20th century and its association with the economic crisis of the 1930s. He described the subsequent rise of a ‘big government” as an attempt to balance the inequities of monopolistic, non-competitive business practices of that time. 

The reform movement became the New Deal and generated a robust set of employment protection and anti-trust laws that stand to this day.  Today, information technology and financial institutions are dominant industries on a global scale.  At the beginning of the 2lst century, the weakening or lack of rules, and policies such as low reserve capital requirement began to produce what the Federal Reserve Chairman Allan Greenspan described as “froth.” Thomas’s closing point was to remind us all that with the beginning of the 21st century, annual earnings in the stock market from trading on American labor continue to exceed the total paid in salary and wages by one and a half times.  On the other hand, the technology industry characterizes a “hastening” of the boom/bust experience and the term “bailout” added to the cycle in a wheeze of complaints and concerns.  

Fisher’s point on the role of a national government to bring about a significant change was about balance, not power. Still, in this part of American history, industry met its match. After that, it confronted its master by rising to become “too big to fail” investment banks and insurance companies with a billion small changes.  The one needed is a big one, and that is to change how we build our cities.

Confronting the Dim World

Over the last century, residential and business districts have caused pathway blindness. The routes taken to and from home are so routine and continuous that all other parts of the outside world become part of the dark realm known by acquaintances or required by infrequent, unusual, or unexpected trips.  The loss of broader experience contributes to accepting physical and self-isolation thinly urbanized sectors of class sameness.  These separations occur among all income groups but grow in rigidity with increased household income.  The criticism that low-density life contributes to intellectual myopia has recently been augmented with a digital component dubbed ‘the news according to me’ phenomena.

Over 80% of Americans live in urbanized areas; many already know that it is not going as well as they expected.  The ‘geography of nowhere experience leans against the ramparts of the wealthier, concierge-style neighborhoods.  They project a vast set of “wonder-where” places that provoke and offset the critical observations of James Howard Kunstler’s sense of ‘nowhere’ places.

Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere did not occur as if Americans hysterically threw their hands up, screaming headlong into the investigation of despair. The vision of life he outlines did not facilitate the development of social networks and probably contributed to the downfall of bowling leagues as in Putnam’s analogy.  Without a doubt, a more practiced socially skilled citizenry would be gratefully welcomed.  Nevertheless, advancing a significant change toward more joyful forms of interpersonal experience appears to be necessary.  Accept the notion that once you know it is inevitable, “driving into the crash” is reasonable behavior, maybe even lifesaving.  Well-organized athletic children, clubs, and civic engagements help people relax and evaluate alternatives in the extreme short term. 

There is no global safety net. History has clearly outlined that nothing other than wealth protects the housing landscape from disastrous resolution. The opportunity to enhance civil discourse on what to do about it is already carefully controlled by the well-protected. Resolutions to avoid the recurrence of the crises are also a prominent part of extensive city history. The urban densities range broadly, but all found ways to enrich, rub, love, scrub, repair, or replace enough to keep a distorted trickle of steaming waste and loss at bay.

Sadly, planners and architects understand the technical details quite well.  On the surface, the problem slips truthfully off the pages of reports and books like Kunstler’s about mounting traffic congestion, sprawling, unaffordable, over-sized housing, a receding and fragmented network of dysfunctional open spaces, and unprecedented environmental stress and outright horror, housing economists continue to claim a surplus of affordable housing in the United States while admitting that much of it is in the wrong place. Social observers define a range of disruptive forms of social strife increased sensitivity to security concerns complicated further by breakdowns in traditional infrastructure, roads, bridges, water, and the rolling brownouts of the electric power grid.

Nevertheless, external change occurs, but nothing seems big enough. The idea of an earth-shattering event is that it helps a society to create new ways of living. Cataclysms force people to confront a problem, break it down, and solve it, but there are differences; a drought (of water or spirit) will have people at each other’s throats, while a flood or storm will have them standing shoulder to shoulder.

The principles for advancing a society that assures “risk from harm” offer a laudable yet litigious nod to the governing body. Yet, in the “as is above – as is below,” definition of life that begins and ends with brilliance or misfortune is of less importance than the simple promise to do our best for one and all.

The Urban Idyll

The list of events that are not “big enough” is extensive. Even though they are eye-opening, mind-blowing disasters, the impetus for significant change is lacking. The current set includes huge fires, massive wind storms, drenching rain, and follow-on landslides. There are severe forms of drought that threaten the stability of large land areas in three southwest states. Extreme weather conditions ranging from Katrina to a nagging series of floods from Iowa to Maine and Nebraska to Mississippi seem familiar. Even the “long-rains” of Nairobi and Bangladesh make news in the United States. All of these generate concern, yet meager levels of discussion on one of the culprits – a thing that is within human control is the way states and localities regulate the use of land and the practice of building to rules instead of performance. These rules are not a cause of devastation, and yet they are the binding target to a collective “throwing up of hands” or audibly muttering something like, “the will of the gods.”  Do we live on a lottery ticket?

Think of it this way, the parting of the Red Sea was of necessity, followed by wandering around the desert for a very long time. What metaphorical desert are we wandering around these days? That is the reflective point here, science and miracles have one thing in common – location. Perhaps it is the expectation of watching the next crisis as a form of entertainment that obscures attentiveness. It could be a “not in my backyard” belief in relief or the complacency of being “well-insured”, or how about “live free or die” politics. This standard social instruction suggests resistance to oppression is obedience to a sacred or higher order. Do these shibboleths turn the plain view of these events into the blind side of an unquestioning life? Probably so.

Putting people in harm’s way is negligent, but when it comes to land use, the purpose of “due diligence” to prevent damage to the dense urban environment is not loosely defined or poorly considered. The complex implementation of development rights conducted with intense legal persistence tends to neutralize the risk of building housing where they are most likely to be kindling or on flood plains awaiting the tsunami of risk histories.

As the old saying goes, “If you are going to dance with a bear, you have to dance until the bear wants to stop.” In this case, the bear’s name is everything from the unintended consequences of rapid development to the beautifully packaged, intoxicatingly beautiful dream house. The image of life outside of the city is powerful.

Cultivating the urban idyll toward a new vision remains a key challenge.

“My darlings we must go, we have a ten-minute walk to the train.”3

Suburban markets ask consumers to imagine a pastoral life away from urban busyness. It seems accurate. Rural life is the pinnacle of civilization, offering a full capacity for safety and leisure. Conversely, the city offers potential for disease, the disturbing crush of many different people, and the debilitating suddenness overwhelming poverty. As an entity, the city must take responsibility for this opinion and for not resisting exaggerations built on these grains of truth. Part of it is the way a city decays. It seems unnatural and permanent. It occurred quickly when the city became easy to flee, but not without warning as it was a car-only plan. The pastoral life via car is slipping away for one reason. The procedures for making a place urban are identical to those that made places suburban. These practices have spawned regions that cannot afford but will pay the foreseeable decay regardless of density. Only who and where remains.

All of it (the decline of city and suburb) builds on the idea that Americans live in some idealized log cabin in the woods, and when a neighbor gets too close, you move on. As an illustrative lifestyle, the products range from life in a candlelit but cozy little box to one with a six-car garage and two indoor swimming pools. The time when these ideas were right has gone. The design it represents eliminates the elements needed to stimulate the intellectual rigor required to confront shared problems. Scholarly harshness will not work whether the impetus is to survive or reach into the universe and unravel every mystery it offers. A sense of “we are in this together” containment will work, and it only needs to be physical.

The capacity to produce rapid change is the purview of a dense urban world. The rebuilding or building anew in a dense urban community is immediate. The skill and talent are readily available and competitive.  An armature of substantial strength receives an unending supply of innovators working to engage new challenges, new ways to save energy or improve the exchange of ideas. Rebuilding toward resilience enriches the crowd in search of respective ends that can be forged face-to-face, in a stable place, a loft or neighborhood, an apartment complex, or on a blanket laid on a knoll overlooking the Hudson. The products of this creativity are evident in the recovery and recreation of the Highline on Manhattan’s Westside or the entire 576 miles of waterfront in New York City.

Living Mechanisms – The Spatial Data

Machines hide in cities. We see cars, lights, buildings, and elevators, but the rest are in conduits and tubes below our feet. There is a point where “the city” as a machine designed to tame Nature must stop. Finding ways to accept a global layer of “smart machines” is ongoing, and there are obvious priorities. It is possible to imagine the Earth covered in a “city.”The idea of reworking and rebuilding the earth-as-city is without credence.

  • An infinitely recyclable material serves the desire to eliminate waste and pollution.
  • Building the city as a “clean machine” includes the possibility of clean data capture.
  • New highly accurate digital tools are predictive of needed inputs that assure decisons.
  • Modeling data produced through remote sensing makes spatial data instantly available.
  • The USGA evaluates recharged ground water systems calibrated on a per capita scale. 

These resources offer urban design and planning professionals opportunities to define growth and consumption as a public health and safety issue with increasing sophistication and reliability. It brings the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere into a sharp picture. The question of how and where development will occur or not happen at all is already a reasonably exact science.

Finding ways to finance open space within the urban world is more problematic. John Todd’s model works to exploit priority financing for water protection and treatment offered by thousands of lower-cost opportunities.  A contemporary of Todd, Kevin Robert Perry, designed the innovative street stormwater project as a demonstration of lower-cost alternatives in June 2005 (See: ASLA) by mimicking natural systems.

Urban architecture has one main label — “is it a box or a duck”.  As a critique, this speaks to two critical components of design that shape most of what we know today – Greco-Roman and Gothic. While discovering a million new ways to stretch and decorate a box will continue joyfully, the architecture and engineering professions led by people such as John Todd or Kevin Perry suggest an organic “ism” by employing the science of biomimicry.  Here, the potential is to grow space as an alternative to building it.  The word for this change begins with fractal.  It links an algorithm to Nature, a broad set of design possibilities.

Quantum Density – Consider Smallness

Given the potential of a natural “as is above, as is below” architecture, the formal structure of the nation’s megaregions could offer useful instruction. The order of it is there, and it will become less limited and flawed as biological processes become central to engineering in the current urban landscape. Perhaps it will reveal the point in time and space when urban growth “stops” like all other life-form habitats.

In an odd twist of language, urban growth is Newtonian (point to point) and Euclidean with two meanings.  Euclid was a mathematician well worth studying because of the way Newton added “time” to his dimensional equations.  The second meaning is in law, Euclid vs. Ambler, a 1926 landmark Supreme Court decision defining the regulation of land as a power of the state. Urbanization is a central concern — growth will (or must) be “unlimited” and for this reason, the idea of density ascends to the question of an upper limit.

All things in life have a point where their parts and thus the whole, stop growing.  The individual organism stops because internal factors and external forces govern the mass of individuals.  The question is whether the human habitat has a similar system and if not, why not.  What is the rational alternative to predation?

The vast humanity built into the bewildering mathematics of quantum physics offers a direct and useful pathway into the chaos of Nature. It illustrates how the exact level of action represented by a small unit, like a square foot of a vacant, abandoned lot, can create a creative self-renewal capacity. It is how leadership rises to meet a need through a community garden association and how they merge into institutions with new mandates and missions.

Less understood is how the discrete energy of these events vibrates at the heart of decay itself, within that square foot of soil, to the garden group formed by its promise, to the citywide and national movement it ultimately represents. Is this an odd way to describe quantum physics?  Is it as simple as that, does energy repeat in millions of ways, thousands of times over? It is about paying attention to the data, whether it is a square foot of soil or an entire continent.

In every conceivable place, the Earth yields to immortal strength of natural and now less than natural change. Nature confirms this trend because the very center of the Earth is an engine.4 A core of liquid iron encircles a solid inner core.  There is a 1,200-kilometer diameter sphere around which everything turns and moves. It has the power to push and pull the direction of the planet’s entirety as a liquid. The rolling hills of Iowa are the same as the waves on distant oceans. The difference time observed. The millions of years, or hours leading to a single wave, is the same as the rise and fall of each mountain and ocean.

Quantum theory confirms this by proving how subatomic particles such as electrons can be in two places at once or exist without “a place” as if time was not relevant.

These proofs alter the Nature of reality by adding an entirely new set of possibilities to our day-to-day reality. In this realm of uncertainty, it is impossible to separate the observer from the observed. They are one. Cosmic time and the subatomic foundation of physical reality are invisible, and yet they are a given.5

At stake in this “as is above, as is below” construct for rethinking the city are things like “failing to notice”.  Was there a failure to expect and thus not prevent the type of stagnation that struck New York City in the 1970s and 80s? Yes, and without a doubt, it is a recurring process in other parts of the country. Suburban .communities are not immune. In 2010, New York’s history of the 1970s and 1980s decay bore a striking similarity to the nation’s Great Lakes rust belt mega-region. With such recurrence, power is evident. Recurrence proves control by something. If unknown and the repetition discontinues or not, other unknown forces are involved and require discovery.

Summary of Priorities

Planners, urban designers, and their development clients draw up hundreds of urban re-invention pathways. It is part of the city’s intellectual tradition. Historically, New York City’s centers are linked to hubs by mass transit links and hubs to include extraordinary adaptability. Each exhibits an ability to adaptive reuse its structures. One family row-house becomes ground floor professional service with one to multiple apartments. Extremely spacious units in pre-WWII apartment buildings are successfully ‘overcrowded’ thus, affordable. The conversion in older neighborhoods with a mix of row-house and apartment buildings is a sustained stock due to substantial adaptations. The stuff that was not physically sound, by chance or crime is gone, ripped from the city’s fabric throughout the 1970s to the late 1980s. The old line about how they could build in the “old times” misdirects the point. The work of those who knew what they were doing remains for the most part and the rest does not.

The ability to retain an old adaptable stock has served the city well, and when the cycle of demand for one and two-family homes returned, the city’s neighborhoods have prospered dramatically. The slow displacement process of “brownstone revival” or so-called “gentrification” movements re-converted the one- or two-family housing to near original conditions while stimulating added demand. This micro-adaptability plus an aggressive affordable housing movement made New York City the only city in the United States to increase in population without altering its borders (1980-1990). New York is the only city to exceed its previous peak in the population (1990-2000) and again in 2010, due to the city’s capacity and readiness to absorb added immigration and add density.  The only true failure is the inability of dense urban communities to capture national political power.

A new kind of displacement force has entered the housing market in New York City and the nation.  A 2009 study by Reconnecting America found about 250,000 privately owned, federally subsidized apartments exist within walking distance to quality transit in 20 metro areas.  The study was commissioned to define the rising demand for housing near transit and fears that upward pressure on house prices will displace low- and moderate-income families and older Americans.6 The argument to retain the age diversity of the dense urban city has already begun.

The capacity for adaptive reuse is a product of quality urban design.  It matters little if they fully understood what they were doing, it matters that it worked and that we pay attention. Spotting the beginning of similar multiple family conversion activities in upper income, low-density communities with high floor area per person ratios present a very different challenge.  Nevertheless, these conversions signal the potential for a disruptive period of decline where the proximity of mass-transit centers is unavailable.7

Paul Davidoff is famous in urban planning circles for his paper on advocacy and pluralism in urban planning, but toward the end of his life, his urban experience led him to create a small nonprofit called Suburban Action in the 1980s. His purpose was to bring a sense of social and economic diversity to the outlying areas of the city with a focus on its small-town centers.

Davidoff, knew Flatbush, Brooklyn as a resident.  Here, it is evident. The design flaw outside of the city is large, sometimes massive homes on large lots.  The same big houses on the tree-lined small lots of Flatbush work better and have a vast appeal in the housing market. Victorian houses and brownstones were designs initially requiring high household incomes. The likelihood that these homes would stay that way forever was (or is) the fantasy. People will find ways to alter use to suit needs, albeit subtly to produce owner/rental subsidies and other methods aimed at multiple households and businesses.

Given all we know, it is very unlikely that only the most prosperous communities will withstand dramatic economic shifts, recessions, or other significant changes in community health. It is also much more likely these changes will occur in transit-based or transit-supported areas in or near the central cities.

The flexibility of Victorian Flatbush and the alley-infill structures of Portland for housing are adding hundreds of creative building designs and adaptations for small-size lots. This willingness to adapt toward density produces hundreds of new choices for creative human action and cooperation. There is a real estate pedigree here with very similar results for low-density communities that are without extraordinary capital resources. 

In New York, living conditions declined in the 1960s and prevailed through the 1970s and 80s. Disinvestment, tax delinquency, and substantial building vacancy prevailed, yet despite this downturn, a policy of modest demolition sustained neighborhoods. In part, this was a cost factor, but it also supported the idea of embodied energy, volunteerism, and community pride. The buildings could be squatted, rubbed, scrubbed, and loved. They offered hope. You could get your hands on them. In a very broad sense, the market responded to the demand for cheap affordable housing through disinvestment, and it happened as a crisis, without guidance until the rise of interventions that respected human life illustrated hope.

This process does not end in Portland or New York – as inside, as is outside.  Decay approaches all residential and mixed-use communities as sure as there is such a thing as entropy. The underlying opportunity is to address options for an increased number of dense new urban or dense suburban centers where entropy is set in its teeth. Finding them is easy, they are found in the level of resistance to conversions of the single-family housing to multiple occupancy and mixed uses or in proposals for new very dense development projects where mass transit links or hubs exist or remain decidedly possible.  Mixed-use urban clusters outline an intelligent communications network within a region as a whole. The case for super density, such as the image below represents is familiar to millions of people worldwide.


1 The first use of the word “commoditized’ was in 1984 , and that alone is interesting.

2 This was the Association for Community Design.  I organized several national conferences as its President for about ten years in the 1990s and early 2000s.  See

3 This image of is in the public domain and one of a five-part series created by Thomas Cole from 1833 to 1836.  They are housed at the New-York Historical Society, and comprise the following works: The Course of Empire – The Savage State; The Course of Empire – The Arcadian or Pastoral State; (shown) The Course of Empire – The Consummation; The Course of Empire – Destruction; and The Course of Empire – Desolation.

4 Nature is one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific journals (November 1869). It is a highly cited interdisciplinary science journal.  The name derives from the Latin word” natura”, meaning essential qualities and innate disposition, which will translate as “birth” in some contexts.  Natura includes meanings translated from the Greek word physis.  This word describes the effort to sense, measure, and predict the physical Nature of human existence.

5 Is there a similarity between the maximum length of a microwave at 30 centimeters and the 30 centimeters added to the solid core of the Earth?  This cycle occurs as portions of the liquid core turns from solid to liquid again. In coming across these two bits of data for this endnote, I thought this oddly paired coincidence of two measures (one factual and the other theoretical) represents the novelty offered as rich sources of data sources associated with electromagnetism become more widely available.  (Comment) 

6 This is the PDF link  Preserving Affordability and Access in Livable Communities: Subsidized Housing Opportunities Near Transit and the 50+ Population

7 A NYC example is Roosevelt, Long Island.  Observers would see a race and class poverty question.  The root cause remains invisible in the urban design of this community and how it became what it is today as a matter of policy.