Urban density was once seen as a sign of unhealthiness and poverty. But today it is necessary to make cities sustainable
Hester Street, New York, c1902. Photo courtesy Library of Congress
Max Holleran is an Urban Studies Foundation Research Fellow and a lecturer in social policy at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Tourism, Urbanization, and the Evolving Periphery of the European Union (2020) and Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing (2022).
Edited by Cameron Allan McKean
9 August 2022 (aeon.co)
Support our work
In cities, the frenetic energy of crowds is feared and fetishised. Fear takes hold when we hear the great din of stampeding masses running from a shooting, a fire or a collapsing building. Municipal governments and police departments feel it too, when they’re required to manage crowds during demonstrations, concerts, sports events – even public holidays. During these moments, that fear can lead to violence as police attempt to regain control using tear gas, truncheons or other methods. At the same time, we fetishise bustling cities and their crowds. As cities have grown safer and more luxurious, people are attracted to the busiest parts of dense urban centres. We might be drawn to the pleasant buzzing of lunchtime masses moving through a city like New York or drawn to the romance of Shenzhen’s glittering blanket of electric lights that stretches out to the horizon. The proximity – even comfort – of anonymous bodies moving together through a streetscape brings tourists to Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing and Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
Rubbing shoulders with strangers is considered both a pleasure and a pain of urban life. Density can be an endless source of social possibility, of chance encounters in city streets. In Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch (2013), the cities of New York and Amsterdam are essential to creating an aura of destiny that propels her Bildungsroman forward. Density can also enforce a sense of psychological distance and anomie. In Wong Kar-Wai’s film Chungking Express (1994), lovesick characters drift emotionally alone through the packed, neon-lit streets of Hong Kong. Though equally feared and fetishised, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, crowds and urban density increasingly became a necessary and even desirable part of life. However, that shift ended abruptly in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic turned teeming cities into sites of extreme viral risk, leading some to ask: is the golden age of urban density finally over?
The pandemic fundamentally challenged our acceptance of crowds and urban density. As the virus spread, residents with means left the city and retreated to the countryside. Those who remained developed anxieties about sharing lifts, public transport or the communal air vents in apartment buildings. This created a sense of density dread. Yet, despite this rebalancing of the scales from fetishisation to fear, the long-term damage to the dream of living in large, crowded, even exciting cities seems to have been temporary. Residential property prices are at an all-time high in many countries, including inner-city flats, despite warnings of a coming migration to the suburbs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As housing prices soar, there have been new demands to increase affordability by building more apartments. The question of density has become pressing not just in the United States, where a home and yard are interpreted as quintessential aspects of the American Dream, but across the world.
Social scientists have also long struggled with the question of density. To them, the city has often appeared in contrary terms: as an engine for immigrant assimilation and economic empowerment; as a site of deviance; and as a space for cultural freedom where one can sever constricting familial and social ties. In much of the world’s poorer nations, living in the sprawl remains a mark of affluence, and density is something to be transcended. What does an alternative look like? Is another kind of density possible, with close-knit communities, sustainable places where car use is minimised, where consumption is decreased, and where people can walk out their front door into a unique and enlivening environment?
To consider the grounds and context of creating a new kind of city, this essay outlines the fraught history of urban density in the US and abroad, from its stigmatisation by city officials as a mark of poverty and uncleanliness, to its reinvention as an asset for artists and cultural workers in the post-industrial era, and onward to the continued appeal of highly populated urban neighbourhoods even after the global pandemic. Despite density dread, we cannot turn our backs on compact cities that provide environmental, cultural and social assets. Living closer together is not anachronistic, or something to be feared, but a major factor of sustainable urbanism. We must re-embrace proximity.
In 1884, when the Lower East Side in New York was one of the most densely populated places in the world, The New York Times published a story entitled ‘Slumming in this Town’ describing how a fashionable London trend – ‘slumming’ – had reached the New World. Ladies and gentlemen could now entertain themselves by sightseeing on the streets of the Bowery where immigrants were crammed into apartment buildings and rowhouses (terraced houses), and where refuse was stacked nearly a metre high in the gutter. Unlike the concern for impoverished residents shown by Progressive Era reformers in the 1890s who visited the same neighbourhood with a sense of opprobrium and pity, these ‘slumming’ uptown gentry were fascinated by streets teeming with life. They were tired of flânerie in the staid precincts of lower Fifth Avenue, and sought out a more vibrant street scene, which was provided by the mix of tenements and pushcart hawkers selling schmattas (rags), potatoes, herring and everything in between. For gentry of the late 1800s, density may have been associated with urban deviance but it was also interesting to look at.
Throughout the early 20th century, density was bemoaned as a necessary agglomeration of people and resources that allowed for metropolises to function but was also a primary factor in widespread ill health, crime and social ‘deviance’. Being packed into neighbourhoods cheek by jowl did not create new kinds of allegiances and affinities at first. Rather, as the Chicago School urban sociologist Louis Wirth put it: ‘The close living together and working together of individuals who have no sentimental and emotional ties foster[ed] a spirit of competition, aggrandisement, and mutual exploitation.’ In order to preserve a modicum of privacy, these ‘individuals’ – thrust together and striving to get by – often decided to look away from each other. They concentrated on their own advancement rather than on finding solidarity with those different from them. But Wirth’s suggestion that a sense of urban ennui went hand in hand with ‘mutual exploitation’ wasn’t entirely accurate: among the despair and despondency at the time were campaigns for more responsible landlords, worker safety and higher wages.
Density didn’t always equal competition. Anti-density thinking during the 20th century also undersold the success of highly populated immigrant-filled neighbourhoods in the prewar US. In Chicago, New York and Boston, wards made up almost entirely of migrants may have been slums, but they offered exceptional mobility through education and work opportunities (only, it should be noted, if you were European). Eventually, density and the mixing of urban cultures produced interethnic and mixed-race marriages, civic cooperation in government and nonprofits, labour mobilisation, and even the fusion restaurants of today’s Lower East Side in New York where tourists no longer go to gawk at poverty but to eat kosher pickles, gelato and xiao long bao (sometimes all in the same afternoon).
Though sometimes romanticised, street life was mostly maligned as a primitive state of being
After the Second World War, US urban sociologists and city planners began to drift away from community studies that used concentrated ethnographic portraits of a single neighbourhood. Instead, they focused on outward growth and polycentrism as expressions of the future. US cities are, after all, a physical manifestation of capitalism dependent on growth, as the political economist Joseph Schumpeter maintained: without expansion or inward renewal, the system atrophies. New theories of urbanisation that emphasised regions, connectivity and limitless growth would come to define the US urban experience and, in doing so, would cast density as antiquated, dangerous and unseemly.
In the popular imagination of the postwar US, concentrated street life was associated with the past. Though sometimes romanticised in movies about bootstrapping immigrants, it was mostly maligned as a primitive state of being. Not only were urban spaces degraded as dangerous and dirty, but many saw their intimate sense of community and public street life – on stoops, rooftops and stairwells – as a forced closeness that disguised inner discomfort. By midcentury, with the rapid growth of suburbs, most Americans would agree with the German theorist Georg Simmel who, writing in 1903, explained that, in cities:
[T]he bodily proximity and narrowness of space makes the mental distance only the more visible. It is obviously only the obverse of this freedom if, under certain circumstances, one nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd.
Maligned, overcrowded neighbourhoods that seemed premodern and rife with ill health and crime were also a major focus of colonial urbanism. European powers sought to modernise cities in Asia and Africa, diminishing the importance of central bazaars and containing street trading to certain areas. In Casablanca and elsewhere, avenues were widened, and informal housing was banished to the periphery as a means of imperial control, prioritising international trade over domestic businesses. At the same time, new European suburbs were built for elites drawing a distinct line between the sprawling villes nouvelles of the future and the dense cités of the past with their narrow, winding streets.
In North Africa, Indochina and elsewhere, this colonial divide within cities represented the geopolitical relationship between centre and periphery. This ‘rationalisation’ of the terrain in cities of the Global South did not stop in the postcolonial era. Rather, many governments saw suburbanisation as a form of modernisation that would address very real housing needs as well as display a willingness to embrace a more ‘modern’ housing morphology, which was expected to boost the international reputation of developing cities. For this reason, Southeast Asian cities did away with kampong (enclosed multigenerational housing), North African cities tore down medinas, and South American pueblos with central plazas were replaced by individual homes with privatised backyards. Indeed, creating ‘American’-style single-family homes, in gated residential neighbourhoods reached only by car, became a status symbol despite their expense, environmental impact and misallocation of state resources.
Suburbia was not the solution, either in the global North or South. As the suburbs became a fact of US life in the 1960s, many who were raised there began to locate a particular brand of dejection in the dispersed built environment. It may have had lustre, but it seemed to lack substance. There was nothing to walk to. The uniformity of the housing stock expressed a wider cultural problem of conformism. And, despite tree-lined streets, green areas were often paved over, creating less fresh air than advertised. The architecture critic Jane Jacobs was the first to express high-density nostalgia in her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), in which she lamented the gradual loss of the ‘sidewalk ballet’ of neighbourhoods in places such as her home, NYC’s Greenwich Village. Tied up in this appraisal of suburbia’s defects was an attempt to rehabilitate central walkable neighbourhoods that were seen in the 1960s as, at best, antiquated and, at worst, dilapidated. Jacobs’s book was a direct reaction to this kind of transformation, a criticism of proposals to raze a large segment of Greenwich Village in the name of slum clearance.
Along with the portrait of choreographed daily comings and goings of West Villagers that Jacobs romanticised, her book conveyed a larger hope to recreate socioeconomically diverse neighbourhoods with small business and localised governance. Jacobs’s dream was based on older cities with compact streets mixing commercial and residential zoning. Examining the winding heterogenous laneways of Europe – as compared with the straight lines of ascendant North American modernism – Jacobs saw diversity in density. From population to building style to economic function, she sought a kind of city that transformed with each step one took through it, rather than places dominated by monofunctional land use for miles on end. In time, this formulation would be taken up not only for its social goals of neighbourliness and coexistence but broader objectives of immigrant integration, small business incubation, and alternative transportation to meet sustainability goals.
Jacobs’s ideas about density went, in a matter of 20 years, from an outsider critique of the hubris of urban planning to a foundational tenet of planning schools. The philosophy of New Urbanism, made popular in the 1980s and ’90s, was a refocusing of urban design on building dynamic public spaces that maximised interactions between residents. This meant smaller shops that were accessible on foot (or, at least, better integrated with the streets around them, rather than surrounded by a sea of parking); more green spaces; and a far-reaching overhaul of zoning to mix commercial and residential functions whenever possible. New Urbanism was enthusiastically heralded by urban planners as a more sustainable way to build cities that returned to pre-automotive times with bustling street life, while community leaders praised the movement for its sociable and democratic qualities: bringing people back to the urban agorae. The broad narrative trajectory of the city through the 20th century – from villain to hero – seemed complete.
Those who would like to live the New Urbanist dream are assaulted by the reality of housing costs
The problem was that New Urbanism remained largely confined within the walls of architecture schools: a kind of on-paper architecture that was ignored by real-estate developers who were busy quickly erecting identical, single-family homes on exurban sites far from stores and mass transit. As the US continued to sprawl in the 1990s with no sign of densification – nor mass-transit investment or mixed-use development – some critics began to see the New Urbanist philosophy as a mere design shell to be slapped onto strip malls and suburban neighbourhoods. To some, it was an easy way to claim innovation by adding a bench and calling it a plaza, or putting a few colourfully painted townhouses into a subdivision and calling it ‘urban’. The true potential of New Urbanist ideas remained in the halls and studios of architecture schools.
Paying lip service to New Urbanism has been de rigueur for a quarter-century among planners, architects, city government officials and the employees of major development firms. But little has been done to move in this direction. Despite the work of some US architects and urban planners, such as Peter Calthorpe and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, little progress has been made on creating mixed-use neighbourhoods in the US that combine shops with homes. Despite calls for more walkability in the early 1990s, most new suburbs are still comprised of detached homes for single families with few transit options beyond driving. This is about more than consumer preferences alone. City zoning laws are a major factor in these decisions. As of 2019, Arlington, Texas was zoned 89 per cent for detached single-family homes, and Chicago (a more compact city) was not much denser at 79 per cent, showing that this housing form is not just de facto in US cities but legally mandated. Other countries fare better, but some, for example in Eastern Europe, have embraced the US urban model as a sign of prosperity and newly gained property rights.
Density and apartments have become much more popular in gentrifying urban areas, but this has not forced a systematic shift in the way that new buildings are designed. Instead, it has put more pressure on existing prewar neighbourhoods with their attractive street life and access to public transport. For those who appreciate the appeal of urban life, the past 25 years have been a profound disappointment for residents of cities around the world. Many people have embraced walkability, smaller homes and vibrant streets, but governments, in particular in the US, have done almost nothing to incentivise this form of growth. Premium neighbourhoods grow more and more expensive. The affordable option? Retreat to far-flung and monotonous suburbs. Those who would like to live the New Urbanist dream are assaulted by the reality of housing costs. But more than dreams are at stake. Reclaiming density means building cities that have a smaller carbon footprint through driving less, that also maintain more cultural amenities in a single neighbourhood, and that can foster more social interactions and support through an increased sense of neighbourliness. Of course, apartments will not solve all our problems, but they will help correct a sense of atomisation and isolation that is both environmentally wasteful and socially unhealthy.
The COVID-19 pandemic emphasised self-sufficiency and separation from others as essential tools to stopping the spread of the virus. Cities became maps of contagion sites. Going out for a coffee seemed like an exercise in risk management rather than a joy, and collective services, such as day care, were agonised over with rules changing daily. In short, people lost confidence in cities as sites of socialisation and places to access valuable services. For many, they became nightmares to be avoided as residents pined for less populated areas or, at a minimum, a yard. What forms can and should cities take after the pandemic?
Many commentators have stated that the true game-changer for cities is not transport or housing but work. White-collar employees can increasingly ‘punch in’ from their living room, which could be in Milan or in Marrakesh. This puts the desirability of density front and centre. Now that living in cities is no longer as much of an economic choice, workers who are able can choose where they live based on the goods and services that big cities provide. Yet what if these aspects of urban life become less of a draw, or if they too migrate online? Will density once again be maligned as something unhealthy, undesirable and primarily suffered by the poor?
Creating future density has the possibility to make more neighbourhoods walkable, social and exciting
Another post-COVID possibility is that policymakers stop seeing the construction of housing as entirely choice based. This involves recognising that people elect where to live based on a very limited set of options that are often dictated by governments and private industry. This changes the story of UK and US suburbanisation in the 1960s and ’70s from ‘people want yards’ to ‘people will move where housing and infrastructure are created’. Often, cultural values were attached to those places afterwards. In this more structural account of suburbanisation, it is easier to imagine a state (such as Singapore, for example) that builds subsidised high rises with roof gardens to combat high prices, shifting the strategy from ‘what people want’ to a question: what kinds of urban spaces arise from distinct economic choices?
New planning codes are already going into effect in the US that will convert single-family-home neighbourhoods to mixed-use commercial and residential spaces with far more apartments and townhouses. This ‘new thinking’ in city planning is actually a classic constriction of growth. In the mid-20th century, this approach was common in many continental European towns where construction was limited to a tightly controlled urban core and some highly regulated new suburbs. When the city ended, people found themselves immediately in countryside or farmland.
Creating future density has the possibility to make more neighbourhoods walkable, social and exciting. It’s both a brave new future of ‘planetary urbanisation’ – where the ‘urban fabric’ appears almost everywhere – as well as a return to the common-sense planning measures of the early 20th century. While the pandemic created a new fear of pathogens in communal spaces, it cannot be allowed to rationalise suburbanisation for yet another generation. The history of urbanisation shows us that confronting density involves resolving a larger set of social problems: acknowledging socioeconomic inequality, coming to terms with multiracial and multilingual spaces, and accepting mutual obligations over individualism.
Retreating from other people during a pandemic is a natural consequence of our pathogen fears but the somewhat hackneyed advice of public health officials remains true: we must physically distance while remembering to provide social support. Creating dense cities is an answer to many of our urban problems. Succeeding where past generations have failed means looking environmental and economic questions in the face, rather than wishing them out of sight and out of mind. It means acknowledging community in all its messiness and occasional chaos. It means embracing proximity.
Parts of this essay are extracted from the book Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing (Princeton University Press, 2022) by Max Holleran.