Super Density

To be “super,” stronger links are needed between ordinary people and the wealth needed to produce dense complex cities. The stumbling failure of Paolo Soleri and Fuller’s “arcololgy” remains enticing. Basic approaches such as Ian McHarg’s demand to “design with nature” are respected. Yet all of them, and many others expose their visions as a lack of institutional leadership at the close of the “exception to the rule” 20th century. Specifically, that failure is the absence of the vitality needed to connect planning, architecture, engineering, and ecology as a unified profession and at the hip. Janice Benyus denounces the servants of the “heat, beat, and treat” sciences. She favors more balance. She calls it Biomimicry. These practices rightfully demand a “wholeness” to human habitat formation. Will any of them produce an environmentally sustainable future in time?

Dense Locations

Lessons for moving toward density in every city are helpful. Those closest to a problem are best at definitions leading to localized solutions. But, unfortunately, this trial and error method for confronting global urbanism includes tragic success and failure consequences. In 2014, researchers Jepson & Haines wrote “Zoning for Sustainability.” It is a review and analysis of the zoning ordinances of 32 cities in the United States.1  They reveal weak local efforts and expose the tragedy of a nation unaware of its Cancer. The rate of change at the local level will be insufficient. A larger solution is well known. However, the means for implementation of a national land use/urban development policy requires a trusted national authority that does not exist. Thus the question, what set of demonstrations might work to create that trust?

Thirty percent of the world’s land is suitable for growing food, but just 10 percent of it is self-sustainable agricultural property. The response to the demand for a 70% increase in food has been industrial, and due to an estimated global population of nine billion by 2050. Urbanization takes only two percent of the world’s land, growing to five percent by 2050.2 Urbanization draws down about 80 percent of the world’s energy production and makes 75 percent of global GHG emissions. The simple need for energy (food and all else) will require public policy and capital investments of unfathomable complexity.

The challenge is to demonstrate the opportunity of going super dense and vertical with both city and food in ways that make it possible to be energy sustainable in every respect need and waste nothing. The urban development status quo will remain in play and unchallenged. However, super density can establish the possibility of balance. Here are four reasons to go super:

  1. Existing dense development already offers a list of successes and failures to examine. Also, acquiring data ranging from cultural differences and communicating the means of implementation is readily available.
  2. Density offers the possibility of an untouched wilderness as a place to rethink the complexity of life and human origins in every aspect.  
  3. The emergence of large populations in life-threatening distress represents the supply of a different “demand.” Migrants are a recognized economic power; refugees produce net financial gains. The missing element is the capacity to contain and nurture an escape from this crisis within a single generation. Dense urban locations may offer solutions specific to threatened cultures.
  4. Urban life can make a lot of food fresh and local, reduce water use, and eliminate waste. As a result, demand for non-renewable energy declines, resilience is offered and sustainability becomes a thing to be realized.

Today, these reasons, among many others, confront a system designed to serve demand “at all cost.” As a system, it offers no protection for any form of life, including humans. The only ongoing problem of density is believing it to be a new way to ensure a healthy life. From the humble virus in search of a living cell to the wandering goliaths of the global ocean, all life remains poorly understood. Humankind comes to its humanity in every aspect because density is a solution that demands it. 3

Of world-changing events, only city building offers solutions to other global problems such as climate change, pandemics, or even another world war. A clear high-pressure focus on how and where we live reveals an opportunity to rethink priorities. Examples are the importance of sanitation, the cause, purpose, and goals of “essential work,” and eliminating polarizing political behavior as detrimental to science’s exactness.

Dense Precision

Over a century since the engineer and architect’s revolutions began at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893). It displayed the affordability, strength, and flexibility of steel. It was the first low-cost construction material since Travertine and a super versatile product for construction. The first schools of architecture formed in direct response to the demands of this new technology. It has been just over a century since MIT (1865), Harvard (1893), and Yale (1916) firmly established the professions of engineer and architect.

Today it is with a sense of irony that the Arts and Crafts Movement holds a reverence well above the miracle of steel. Three groups with sufficient wealth and intellectual drive created the Century Guild (1882)4, the Art-Workers Guild (1884), and the Crafts Exhibition Society (1888).

When Morris and Company captured a sense of this group’s power, a form of design leadership emerged based on Ruskin and William Morris’s principles – to revitalize design by reuniting it with craft.5

Craft does not require density; it inspires it. Second, the excitement of steel frame construction and the insights of Arts and Craft offer a lesson to which developers can return. Third, define design problems by advancing density to an upper, unknown limit. Fourth, call for creators to put the human spirit’s dimensions ahead of technology. Finally, building strong science-based leadership out of the architecture and engineering community as political leadership is unlikely.

On the other hand, politics may not be necessary. For a century, community-building professions have limited their demonstrations to one client/project at a time. The demand for technical excellence has yet produced an institutional framework capable of defeating the economics of building or the excesses of clients in the rise and fall of marketplace demand. All of that will change given the injection of renewable construction solutions.

This process of recognizing “big” may have begun with steel, and it will likely return to its roots in fiber. In 2016, a small factory with 135 work workers in Riddle, OR glued boards into 10-by-30-foot panels with a pneumatic press. What comes out three hours later offers the world the building material of the future. It is cross-laminated timber or CLT. You can build skyscrapers with it. Wood is a sustainable material, and it sequesters carbon. Unfortunately, the production of steel and concrete emits high GHG levels of GHGs into the atmosphere and exacerbates global warming. Here too, low carbon solutions are underway. The politics required is not to help people understand the need for change. It is being done today as a choice for their children.

The force for building a competent city-building practice is best rooted in the idea of a craft and guild society. It is key to the continuous discovery of excellence. This century’s challenge is to hold the same sensitivity at the molecular scale of materials controlled by a wood’s grain. However, the myriad problems emerging in the decay of low-density environments are resolved by the high ground of location.

Dense Inclusion

City finance programs trade for social and economic diversity with density upgrades. It contributes to low-property tax per capita, including modest but politically palatable tax increases or rebates. In addition, substantial floor area bonuses provide 20 percent or more new housing units to serve low- and moderate-income households with incomes at 80% of the area median income.

Waivers of property and sales tax on construction materials meeting sustainable building standards are well established and quickly adopted. For large-scale development activities, agreements with commercial and housing developers for recreational amenities also produce benefits via memorandums called community benefits agreements.[6]  These and many other innovations respond to ongoing investment in the dense urban environment. It is a proven solution to make inclusion mandatory by a region’s local and county leadership. New York City has already borne the high initial cost of litigation on the affordability mandate.

The geographical spread of small towns, cities, and villages present the seeds of “micro-urban density.” The financing formula that initially created it accurately valued the in-place infrastructure of the dense urban center. Its success spawned its lower-density counterparts, but they still predict core locations for increased density. Infrastructure may conjure up highways, train tracks, and bridges images. However, it includes a highly trained police and fire protection force, expert sanitation services, public education systems, well-tested regulations, and on and on in dense urban areas. Yet, despite efficiency, the national (if there was one) policy does not recognize this old investment compared to the new Greenfield investment.

Documenting urban and suburban investment distortions include the proponents of “edge city” type developments. John Norquist, former Milwaukee Mayor and proponent of “new urbanism,” strongly believes in serving “market-oriented” forces. Remember, politicians and real estate developers share the “give the people what they want” sentiment regardless of impact or consequence. The 21st response requires a responsibility to protect people from “wants.” Not to do so follows the behavior and logic of a cancer cell. Offsetting the negative effect of continuous residential expansion into the American landscape requires an improved climate for dense urban living quality investments. High-value amenities in the city serve the poor or the rich without blinking. Dense urban environments compete well with features low- and moderate-income consumers enjoy. Here are some suggestions to accelerate investment in resources to produce a network of high-density locations.

Density is a Choice

Responsibility regarding the excesses of consumer demand challenges well-being by providing more ways to live, but not necessarily well. Density offers a competitive alternative to the sizeable single-family dwelling and car-icon as a practical first step.

Understand urban area decay. It occurs anywhere in a region, not just in cities. In most cases, the old centers represent an opportunity. Many link destinations with mass transit connections to produce high residential and commercial densities. The ongoing renewal of these locations builds on a broad set of fair and equitable programs with a fifty-year history of legal precedent for public intervention. Older cities know the Housing + Transit benefit well; they have written the enabling legislation and connected it as a combination.

Density self-promotes an unknown upper limit. It also encourages existing low-density communities to stay low-density. This win-win absorbs demand and reduces the stress on public resources. Regionally, it is helpful to realize urban decay is constant, even in small urban centers. However, as municipal and county operating costs increase, the demand to expand property taxes and political desire to flatten rates contribute to decay through selected disinvestment.

Suburban areas near large cities rank highest in property tax rates. Cook County in Illinois and almost all of New Jersey are excellent examples. Why? Paying more for a suburban house leads to higher property taxes because purchasing includes the presumption of quality schools and public services. The house price, property tax, and government service relationships include the racial factor directly connected to those disinvestment choices. As expressed in Mount Laural I and II, the law reveals the public obligation for a more effective community design to serve a diverse population.

Density is Competitive

As urbanism becomes increasingly global, the likelihood of harming ordinary people increases with diluting the legal framework. The consensus on this point continues to build. Nevertheless, it may not be possible to discourage public revenue for suburban infrastructure. Sprawl may not be in the best interests of the nuclear family. Still, the argument to curb it as a destructive force is negatively rooted. Incentivizing a competitive alternative is positive.

New and rehabilitated housing can give people what they want and need at every income threshold when private/public investors are financed in a community designed for quality. For instance, the terms could be as follows:

  • Sustain long-term urban/suburban comparisons per capita for all costs assigned to the public revenue via regional planning and management organizations.
  • Multi-state legislation programs will promote dense mixed-use urban communities tied to multi-transit nodes.
  • Approvals of suburban development will require full cost accounting on a per capita basis
  • The use of public subsidy demands a useful urban/suburban comparison to evaluate fairness and include examples such as:
    • Finance and lower development costs for municipalities, cities, and towns that support mixed uses, multiple transportation modes with significantly higher densities
    • Cap mortgage-interest tax relief on new suburban residential construction
  • Establish an over/under of development value as defined for a region. Tie it to the area median income (AMI)
  • Eliminate new infrastructure’s state and federal financing provisions without a comparable “fix it first” investment in existing infrastructure.
  • Increase the cost of permits on a regional basis for suburban development to assure the resources needed to provide an independent environmental assessment.
  • Expand the availability of resources for state and local agency development and maintenance of natural preservation areas, community forests, land trusts, national and state park systems to produce an unfragmented open space and wilderness
  • Produce a list of capital investments and measures establishing a per capita balance between public and private investment in dense urban centers.
  • Two dissimilar yet supporting factors will advance super density to a probability. The first is the death of distance assumptions. The movement of goods and access to services are significant variable cost factors that demand baseline local production. The second is the introduction of regional governance functions as federal powers to reduce state dysfunctions.

The twenty-first century began with broad recognition of a globally competitive market following World War II. The economic awakening changed everything.[7] Other than the lives lost and altered forever, the United States was physically untouched by war. Yet, within a few years of the war’s end, the central government began massive public investment in transportation and communication. Long-term investments laid the foundation for unprecedented growth. If a similar force for change occurs again, super density offers the answer. From the mid-20th century on, the vibrant distribution of wealth through labor worked. Still, income inequality is so apparent that the minimum guaranteed income has gained traction. It was not long before the “bet on labor” yielded more than the total paid for labor.

American labor remains productive in many sectors because its value and goods are higher than those lost. However, this domestic product growth led to decreased wages and employment percentages that provided lower-valued goods or services. The so-called “jobless recovery” of the 21st century’s first significant recession was metaphorically referred to as a pulmonary embolism. The medical solution is to break up the potential for clots or expect patients to die. However, the data produced by urban density does comply well with a metabolic approach to meeting needs. It is an opportunity to develop a national security production capacity for essential goods and services.

Good governance has three areas of sequential inquiry led by the advocates of health, education, and general welfare. The first is the diagnosis of tolerable distress levels. The second follows with implementing interventions, and the third re-defines essential services. The objectives of this process are twofold, to stimulate businesses and reduce the fear of poverty. Either way, balanced or not, the government’s role is to attack distress problems while remaining accountable for results from the personal to the corporate. It matters little whether the cause of distress is economic in origin or a pandemic — the result matters.[8]

Public interventions arise to support business development and address the failure to self-regulate or allow regulation. Other interventions offer a safety net for families to pick up the slack where a private sector involvement or government effort is insufficient. Both seek to stimulate the fairness of change by reducing racial sensitivities or investing in data services or research to increase specific industries’ competitiveness.

The most challenging government tradition to sustain is documenting success or the lack of accountability without partisanship. Failure here is due to the modern dependence on short-term victories. In contrast, a national highway system, the launching of communication satellites, and a wild-west internet policy led to increased prosperity, but not the permanent path to stability a nation needs.

Once again, the time to make a significant change is pressing up against the American psyche. That kind of pressure turns governance toward its second traditional priority. Build institutional structures capable of mitigating large-scale American-style distress. The dense urban setting is the best place to apply and develop knowledge capital efficiently amidst rapid change. Produce services that level the playing fields against the divide and conquer psychosis. Finally, a foundation essential to sustaining a vital and diverse society becomes the leading value. The public arena in the U.S. offers the capacity for resilient leadership capable of keeping cities whole.


  1. Edward J. Jepson Jr. & Anna L. Haines (2014) Zoning for Sustainability: A Review and Analysis of the Zoning Ordinances of 32 Cities in the United States, Journal of the American Planning Association, 80:3, 239-252, DOI:10.1080/01944363.2014.981200.  article:
  2. United Nations, International Energy Agency, Food and Agricultural Organization
  3. Food Inc. was release in the United States on June 12, 2009 and distributed by Magnolia Pictures it was directed by Robert Kenner and produced with him and Elise Pearlstein. See website Tapped (2014). The Cove is a 2009 documentary film that analyzes and questions dolphin hunting practices in Japan. It was awarded the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.  Blackfish is a 2013 documentary directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite. The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2013, and was picked up by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films for wider release.
  4. By Davidt8 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  5. References: W.R. Lethaby (1857 to 1931) and E.S Prior (1852-1932) Barry Parker (1867-1947) and Sir Raymond Unwin (1863-1941); Parker and Unwin 1902 design of new Earswick, York constructed for the industrial philanthropist Joseph Rowntree.  (pp 1173) Earswick was built to serve employees and the market at large.  The design focused on well detailed housing with communal-use facilities in a strict adherence to the Arts and Crafts values. Also see Port Sunlight and Bournville and Letchworth, Hampstead Garden Suburb by Parker, Unwin.
  6. Journal of Planning Education and Research Online First, published on August 12, 2008 as doi: 10.1177/0739456X08321805 Expanding Planning’s Public Sphere STREET Magazine, Activist Planning, and Community Development in Brooklyn, New York, 1971–1975 by Laura Wolf-Powers.
  7. Two Nobel Prize winners led the way following WWII. Simon Kuznets in the United States and Richard Stone in the United Kingdom built monitoring systems used by almost all of the world’s counties.
  8. Bernanke, Ben, et al. Principles of Macroeconomics (2004) McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. have written a readable textbook that anecdotally reviews the historical forces shaping global economics and the United States.