“Urban” and “Dense” Are Not Always Synonymous

I suppose you could say that my main hobby is studying how the built environment of urban areas has developed and changed over the past century. I’m more aware than most of the terrible things that have been done to the urban form in order to accommodate automobiles. Between urban freeway construction, “urban renewal,”  and the resulting demolition of blocks and blocks of otherwise viable buildings just to create surface parking lots and widen streets, most American urban centers have areas of blight, decay, and sheer blandness that resemble London after the Blitz. Overemphasis on the automobile and its needs has been disastrous for most American cities. I challenge anyone to look at before and after photos of Pittsburgh’s East Liberty district, for example, and to determine that any aspect of the “after” looks like an improvement over the “before.”

And yet, these things did happen. These pockmarked areas, “missing teeth”,  and sometimes bizarre street layouts are now part of the urban fabric. They’re part of the history of cities, just like the new façades that were given to Victorian buildings in the 1940s and 1950s as well as the generally useless pedestrian plazas of the 1960s and 1970s. Like them or not they’re texture, which to me is the very definition of “urban.” And I have to admit that I often find them almost as fascinating as disturbing. It’s my inner archaeologist, I guess, but I like trying to piece together how these areas were before they were rebuilt, and how they came to have their current configuration — even if I don’t find the actual current configuration to be particularly appealing.

And sometimes, I actually do find the automobile-based accommodations appealing. One of the things I most like about Chicago, for example, is the way you can be driving through a relatively dense urban neighborhood and all of a sudden find a 1960s supermarket or a 1970s fast food joint (or even an entire shopping center) with a small parking lot in mid-block. I understand that it horrifies many traditional urbanists and sends preservationists into wheezing fits when the streetscape is “broken,” but I often find sites like these to be  little unexpected surprises that break up the monotony and demonstrate (a) how cities adapt and change over time, and (b) that the neighborhood remained vital enough to merit that sort of investment even as urban areas were supposedly “dying.”

So where is this going and how does it relate to the title above? There is considerable pressure now in many cities to obliterate anything that isn’t sufficiently “dense,” apparently based on some arbitrary definition of how dense something must be in order to officially be “urban.” I don’t have a problem with making cities more dense and less car-dependent; I’m generally in favor of it, although I think it’s a battle that will never be won in some places. I do, however, have a problem with the idea that every block of every neighborhood within a city must have pretty much the exact same (high) level of density as every other one. And I very much have a problem with the idea of accomplishing this through wholesale clearance of the existing environment (“all at once and right now, dammit”) particularly when that environment may already be quite viable and even quite urban in its own way.

That’s the point I’m making with the title; the fact that a development has very high density does not make it particularly interesting nor urban in character. And sometimes, low-rise commercial (and even relatively low-density) commercial areas are among the most interesting places in a city. I’ll take San Francisco’s  Richmond or Sunset districts over Mission Bay or South Beach or the Financial District any day of the week.

Take, for example, Richmond’s Cary Town.  It’s a classic streetcar suburb, with mostly one- and two-story storefronts on the main street and houses — some of them rowhouses and some detached — on the side streets. Many blocks have only on-street parking, but there are some lots. One of the earliest shopping centers in the county is right in the middle of it all, and some newer ones are at the western edge. All in all, it’s a lively and exiting place.

What would they have if they “impoved” it by bulldozing all that low-density development dating from the first half of the twentieth century and replaced it with a wall of high-density housing (with, of course, discreetly hidden parking garages and mandatory street-level retail)? For a start, they would most likely lose all the small, independent merchants, who would no longer be able to afford the rent. They would most likely lose most of the pedestrian appeal as well. In the end, what they’d have would be the South Boulevard corridor in Charlotte’s Dilworth, a former streetcar strip which now rivals any suburb for sheer blandness and soullessness. By god, it’s dense, though. Interestingly, in Charlotte, the auto-centered strips from the 1950s are some of the most urban areas in town, probably because most of the streetcar strips are either gone or are in the process of being “densified.”

Obviously big developments surrounded by vast seas of parking are generally not appropriate in urban areas and should be discouraged. Some of the existing ones should probably be replaced. But trying to fill every urban block with the maximum density possible (and particularly doing so all at once with massive projects) is not the way to go either. In fact, a lot of the “densification” trend, with its huge urban building projects looks just about as misguided as the car-oriented development it purports to “correct.” Wholesale clearance of urban environments is generally never a good idea, no matter how hard to love some of those environments may be. And eliminating all traces of earlier development, misguided as some of it may have been, robs us of some important evidence of our urban history.

One thought on ““Urban” and “Dense” Are Not Always Synonymous

  1. Carytown is awesome. I lived in Richmond during the 1980’s after living in Madison, WI in the late 1970’s. I see to gravitate where A&P banner stores are. Sorry to say that both Madison and Richmond no longer have Great A&P stores.

    Your journeys somehow lap mine over the years.

    As always, I really enjoy your posts. Wishing you continued success.

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