April 20, 2004

High Density with no Benefits

Category: Urban Planning


Phoenix, AZ: This type of high-density condo development can be found all over American Suburbia, especially here in the sunbelt. The problem to me is that while they might be more affordable than other options, they take on many of the negative attributes of city living while offering none of the benefits - ie - you're stacked up together at densities aproaching those of New York in smaller and smaller apartments, but you're still 100% dependant on your car to so much as blow your nose.

This place is probably zoned in such a way that the developer couldn't put in a small convienence store even if it occured to him that people might use it. As property prices skyrocket everywhere, increased density is an inevitability, even in the spread-out southwest. So why can't developers and city codes respond to it more intelligently?

Posted by Nick at April 20, 2004 04:53 AM | TrackBack


I agree - the problem here is not so much density, as idiotic zoning laws that seem to be the norm here in the U.S.
In most european countries, mixing residential and light commercial development is not only allowed but encouraged - this is what makes it possible to have decent living standards and not depend on cars even when living in suburbia or semi-rural areas. I don't understand what is stopping U.S. cities from doing the same thing.

Posted by: Qualimony on April 21, 2004 10:28 PM

The worst thing, though, is that developments like this are used as the evidence that 'Americans don't like density'. Given that 'Americans don't like density', the zoning poobahs continue to see to it that everything's spread out.

They do this until they discover -- as they do, everywhere, every few years -- that their Burger Kings, schools, and police and fire departments are having trouble attracting employees because nobody but corporate vice-presidents and lawyers can afford to live nearby, whereupon they approve another dreary 'dense' development that nobody with a choice will live in. It's true that Americans don't like 'density', but this is really only true where what you call 'density' is this kind of garbage.

In the few places in American suburbs where you've got ongoing quasi-functional dense development that's designed to appeal to the market rather than solve a specific problem of the local government, it's a different story. In those places, they can't build condos fast enough, and the prices keep rising.

Near where I live is Reston Town Center in Reston, VA. Condos and townhouses in the Town Center normally sell for $300K-$800K, and they don't stay on the market for long.

As a functional place, Reston Town Center is actually hamstrung by its very popularity. It's such an unusual and popular place that retail rent is far too high for anything but fancy restaurants, Banana Republic, etc.; you still have to get in your car to get to a grocery store or convenience store. Melon ballers are provided for, though, in the Williams-Sonoma.

Posted by: Tino on April 22, 2004 08:30 AM

I wonder at what point urban planners stopped building places people wanted to live in. Your item is one of many examples. The odd thing is that high-value, desirable places are typically high density urban zones with a wide range of functions all mixed up. Why are we not still building these? To judge by the amount of land buried under huge parking lots and huge metal boxes of one sort or another, space is not the issue. High land values should encourage careful use of that resource but it does not, it seems.
Does anyone have a good link or reference to some of these issues?

Posted by: Richard on April 28, 2004 12:37 AM

"High value" for whom? For every affluent urbanist who eagerly pays a premium for a Manhattan apartment, there are ten subdivision living family men who hate Manhattan, have no interest in "urbanity" and come out in droves to City Council and Planning Commission meetings to oppose anything different than standard suburban practice. I'm afraid its a vicious circle-the residents of current suburbia are used to suburbia and its "benefits." The market caters to this demand. And, the price of building fringe suburbia is much cheaper-and its far easier to provide the 3,000 square foot, 3-car garage "gated communities" that the market seems to demand in the suburbs.

I also have a bit of trouble with the statement "planners build cities." Doesn't really happen anywhere outside of Socialist France. Private firms, generally hyper-specialized in each puzzle piece of suburban sprawl modules, build cities. These private developers are certainly risk-averse and not very visionary. Planning in the US is reactive, bureaucratic, and not very visionary. Of course, the laws, regulations, and processes are, as you correctly note, certainly geared at replicating more of the suburban same.

Posted by: bkmiller on June 4, 2004 01:12 PM

I think some of the problem stems from visions of planning based on design, rather than on the people that will use the area.

One of the best examples of this is apartment design. I've lived in several different apartments, and none have ever been designed for someone to actually use as a "home." Most apartments I have seen are designed for single folks who have about 2 plates, one silverware set, and generally keep little more than a 24-case of beer and a jar of mustard in the 'fridge. As someone who cooks, I've actually had to turn a part of a linen closet into an additional pantry, because I actually possess more than 8 kinds of spices, and more cookware than a frying pan and a BBQ grill. The AC intake in every apartment I've ever lived in has also been set in some really inane place that forces you to avoid using about 1/3 of your living room area.

Granted, apartments are primarly designed for singles and college kids... folks that probably spend more time at work, school, or at bars than at home... but it's an example of how so many things are designed with the space or layout in mind, but without any real thought put into how that space or layout will actually be used by people.

Ergonomics is a concept that would be well-applied to more than just the handles on cookware and headsets.

Posted by: Onikaze on September 24, 2004 12:24 PM
Post a comment