The ‘right’ density: In the process of putting this post together, I missed Ryan Avent’s piece in The Economist, mentioning some of the broader consequences of land use regulation constraints. It’s a great summary of some of the key issues regarding density, constraints to growth, levels of governance, and our regulatory processes. The genesis for the discussion is Facebook’s ability to spark a boom in Silicon Valley following their IPO. Avent documents the constraints to this (and any other development) and the macroeconomic implications.
Avent leaves a footnote about what the ‘right’ level of density is, offering another criticism of Richard Florida’s recent piece on the subject. Avent writes:
Some urbanists claim that it’s important to cultivate the “right” density to boost innovative activity, and that tall buildings aren’t compatible with this. See this recent Richard Florida piece as an example. This strikes me as mistaken on multiple levels. I have very little confidence in the ability of planners to understand what a particular density is accomplishing and whether the “interactions facilitated” by shorter buildings either exist or are large enough to offset the higher real-estate and labour costs to which they contribute. It does not appear that technology companies have had trouble colonising central San Francisco or New York, despite the significantly greater verticality of those places relative to, say, Mountain View. And space is mostly fungible. Even if we assume that tech companies prefer short buildings while professional firms and households are happy in tall ones, the failure to provide ample supply for the latter uses will crowd out some of the former. That is, maybe the construction of lots of new residential and office highrises in San Francisco doesn’t attract a single tech firm to the new towers. The new construction will nonetheless place substantial downward pressure on rents, attracting lots of new people to the region and making it easier to start a business.
The focus on the ‘right’ density for innovation seems quite far-fetched and unsupported by evidence. Some planners will indeed offer all sorts of reasons to limit heights of buildings, but facilitating greater innovation is not usually the stated reason.
Planning and process: There are two competing issues that Avent touches on, however. One is the content of the land use regulations, their substance and their scope. That is, the kind of stuff they allow and disallow. The other is the process of making these land use decisions.
Over the weekend, the New York Times featured a profile of New York’s planning chief, Amanda Burden. A few things jump out: under Burden’s leadership, the planning department has substantially upzoned many areas of the city:
Since 2002, when she was appointed to head City Planning, she has overseen the wholesale rezoning of the city, with 115 rezoning plans covering more than 10,300 blocks; by the end of her administration, the department is expected to have rezoned about 40 percent of New York, an unprecedented number.
However, while the content of the regulations has increased, the process has not gotten simpler:
But that attention to detail has also received criticism. Ms. Burden’s belief in contextual zoning, for example, under which new developments in a neighborhood are required to be in the height and style of surrounding structures, leads to “profoundly conservative building,” said Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Associationand director of its Center for Urban Innovation. “New York’s greatness as the dominant skyscraper city of the 20th century was the result of bold building, but the local zeitgeist has switched from big and bold to keeping everything small, nondescript and similar to everything else in the neighborhood.”
It has also become common under Ms. Burden’s leadership for developers and their architects to have to negotiate their designs with City Planning. “Development has become a game of second-guessing,” Ms. Vitullo-Martin said. “What will Amanda think of my project? What will I need to compromise on?
“There really doesn’t seem to be any true as-of-right development anymore,” she added, referring to the ability to build without obtaining permits or other approvals.
This strikes me as one of the fundamental tensions of urban development. Much of it will follow the path of least resistance, building what is allowed by right due to the easier process. Chris Leinberger always made a point to emphasize how reform must make doing the right thing also the easy thing. This is more about making the bad approach just as hard as the right approach.
In an ideal world, it would be best to make doing the right thing the easy thing; the by-right thing for developers. You could reduce the constraint of the code’s substance while also reducing the procedural barriers to building – the timeline for approval in New York is significant:
FOR developers, the clock is ticking. Though the Bloomberg administration won’t leave office for 19 months, most projects that require rezoning or other Planning Department approval can take at least 18 months to get through the process. And the administration’s overall friendliness to development means that most builders with projects on the drawing board are scurrying to get them passed before the term’s end, rather than face the uncertainty of the next administration.
However, I’m curious if there is an absolute tradeoff between content and process. Richard Layman advocates for precisely that – the reduction of by-right allowances with the goal of improving development outcomes. I’m not sold that the tradeoff is absolute, however – that the only way to improve outcomes is to increase the control of the process over development. Instead, the bar for by-right development should be higher, but without extra procedural hurdles.
Nonetheless, I am interested in seeing where exactly the borders between those tradeoffs are. There’s also the question of personality and uncertainty – what does the rush to get approvals before Burden leaves office say about the longevity and sustainability of that regulatory mechanism? Does it become completely reliant on the people in a given office?
Open questions, all – I’m uncertain about the nature of those tradeoffs.
The wrong relationships: Echoing Richard Florida’s points about density and skyscrapers being nothing but ‘vertical cul-de-sacs’, the blog Walkable DFW unloads a lot of reasons to hate skyscrapers, none of which stand up to a closer reading.
An example. Increased density has diminishing returns for efficient transportation: this is true for transit ridership, but that’s because once you get to high levels of density, you don’t need transit at all – you just walk. Accessibility wins over mobility.
There are lots of other problematic statements, including some cherrypicked density datapoints from Barcelona and New York, but one in particular caught my eye: “stretching buildings upwards has the same effect as stretching them outwards.” That is, he claims building up is just as inefficient as sprawl:
I often lament living on the 19th floor. I often walk to work. But I still experience rush hour: waiting for the elevators before and after typical work hours (often as much as 10 minutes if a few of the elevators are down, which invariably some always are).
I only bring this up for a chance to link to this excellent 2008 New Yorker piece on the secret lives of elevators. It would seem that this blogger’s building is under-elevated – though I would posit that’s not a particularly good reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.