The Pathology of Density
By Richard Carson
The word "density" has become the rallying cry of no growth demagogues in Oregon's neighborhoods and cities. It is an all purpose scare tactic used to pass voter annexation measures, stop light rail planning or recall elected officials. But why do people react so negatively to the word?
The Genetic Code: One answer is that our reaction to human density has more to do with our evolutionary genetic programming than with conscious analytical thought. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, in their book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, make a compelling argument that humans are the result of 500 million years of DNA programming and the process of natural selection. They say that for some primates, "If population density becomes too high, then mechanisms are set into motion to reduce it." These forces may include, "...fighting and domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, soaring infant and maternal mortality; psychosis... gay bashing; alienation, social disorientation and rootlessness..."
When increased density is challenged, then the Northwest Portland neighborhood is often trotted out. Northwest Portland is, in reality, several blocks of older apartment buildings inhabited by a unique population of people who need low cost housing - primarily senior citizens and young people. They are also people who can't always afford to drive or insure and maintain automobiles. However, the area's popularity, provides some insight into the conflicting claims about density.
Two Theories of Density: Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, says that using persons-per-acre is a "statistical monstrosity" because it masks the real problem of overcrowding. She argues that higher density may or may not include overcrowding -- or too many people per room -- which is the real culprit destroying urban livability. Jacobs argues for increased density linked to increased livability. The theory being that if you give people more espresso bars and boutiques, then they won't care how dense their neighborhood is.
Ian McHarg, the guru of ecological planning, in his book Design With Nature talks about a "pathological togetherness" whereas "density increases, so do social pressures, which manifest themselves in stress disease..." He basically agrees with Sagan and Druyan, and cites the same studies. He says the evolutionary reason for this pathological behavior is that "stress inhibits population growth." It is nature's way of fighting increased density -- but not over-crowding. McHarg disagrees with Jacobs and concludes that of all the urban stress factors "the single obvious one is not poverty, but density..."
Cultural Norms: One of the most dense human populations on earth exists in Hong Kong. Everyone lives in concrete towers and the average density is 280,350 people per square mile. Compare this to the estimated 3,500 people per square mile living in the City of Portland. If high density carries with it such a negative pathology; then we must ask ourselves, "Why is crime so low there?" Part of the answer is cultural. Think of Hong Kong as the Northwest Portland of Asia. Hong Kong has a unique British-Chinese tradition that produces a high standard of living, an unusual civility and a respect for authority. So the pathology of density has a threshold governed by more than spatial density. It is also governed by regionalized cultural norms.
This should raise a concern. If there is any human population totally ill-suited to higher densities, it is people living in the American west. Our ancestors originally came west to be free of the overcrowding on the East Coast and in some cases free of authority and society. These independent characteristics (and characters) are an inherent part of our cultural fabric.
Oregon's Compact: The pragmatic bargain Oregonians made with nature was that we would plan our settlements as rationally as possible and not spill haphazardly across the natural landscape. Statewide planning goal 14 sums this up by saying we will maintain a compact urban growth form through the use of urban growth boundaries. There are no density targets. The point of the statewide planning goals, as originally adopted, was simply to plan development rationally and to mitigate development impacts on farmland and natural resource land.
Environmental activists and no growth advocates -- who are often allies and see development as the common enemy -- have completely different views on density. Some environmentalists are taking a perfectly good idea to a political, social and economic extreme. They preach that compact urban areas must be achieved by increasing urban densities. Their strategy -- which I would call the "Northwest Portland Strategy" -- is to save the natural environment by packing people in to dense human reservations and then to limit their mobility by convincing them that they don't need automobiles.
Towards a Better Model: A more rational economic approach is to decide what the market demands for housing actually will be and to plan the future accordingly. If market requirements change over time, then so should the density mix.
The only place that mandatory high-density makes sense is around light rail stations and bus transfer stations. It also would make sense to focus high density at freeway interchanges. The latter would help reduce vehicle miles traveled through cities and neighborhoods. However, freeway interchanges are not considered in the current planning process. Indeed, the only planning discussion we have had is about why we should not build them. However, maximizing infrastructure is imperative in a time of shrinking revenues -- and that infrastructure includes freeways and highways.
It's time that Metro and LCDC walk away from dictating artificially high density targets to local governments. It makes more sense to let cities design and build neighborhoods their people actually want to live in and expand the urban growth boundary when needed. This single policy decision will go a long way in reestablishing the local voter's faith in efforts like Region 2040 and in their local government's desire to implement it.
Richard H. Carson edits the Oregon Planners' Journal and directs community development for the City of Oregon City. He is the former planning director of Metro.