Density Done Wrong

Quick note: from time to time I stumble onto a serious topic when I was not expecting to. At these times I always feel a bit anxious that the couple of hours of thought and I writing I put in are not worthy of the seriousness of the topic. This is one of those instances. Take this one for what it’s worth, and let's come back to the topic another time…

Every time I leave town, something crazy happens. This time, Taxi-gate. I feel compelled to write something about this; yet, I don’t really have a dog in that hunt. I know both of the principals involved, have a great deal of respect for them both, and know that they’re both working hard for the good of Chattanooga. Hopefully they can work through their differences and forge a manageable working relationship.

The dust-up aside, the core issue- lack of decent transportation options for a large segment of the community- is a serious one. For now, I will not weigh in on the taxicab proposal, but I will make a couple of observations about the larger issues. The truth is that transportation is not the problem, it is merely a symptom. The problem is in our history of affordable housing development.

The provision of affordable housing is a vexing problem. To clarify, I am talking about subsidized public housing; not housing that is affordable for the work force (which is also vexing, but a topic for another day). The economic barriers that are the essence of the problem are real, however, there is a more subtle and pernicious factor in play – design.

For that last several decades of the past century, hundreds of cities around the country built thousands of high-density, low-income housing developments. History has not been a kind judge of these projects. These projects are vilified for their design. The dense complexes became the poster child for all that is wrong with Modern architecture. I certainly wouldn’t defend many of those developments, but I don’t believe that the failure of that model is necessarily in design. I simply don’t believe that dense development is inherently bad from a social standpoint. There is no shortage of examples of dense housing around the world and in our city that functions perfectly. In fact, some of the properties in the hottest market in town, the North Shore, bear a striking physical resemblance to government housing projects both in density and design.

It is widely acknowledged that the biggest issue with those government housing projects was the concentration of poverty. The unintended sociological consequences of that concentration are well known. Unfortunately, the false connection has been made between concentration of poverty and density of development. To the people who have lived in these places, and to those who are involved with trying to improve the situation, density is now equated with poverty and sub-standard housing.
Around the turn of the century, as the inadequacy of the project model of subsidized housing was apparent, work was undertaken to undo some of those wrongs. This work was done under the auspices of Hope-VI and other such programs. Those redevelopment projects were very correctly based on input from those who would live there. The problem is that the basis for input is skewed. There is an understandable (but false) perception that density equals poverty and sub-urban design equals the American dream. When the public input sessions are held, of course the residents express a preference for a big yard, and a gabled single-family house with a picket fence. That is what everyone in society has been programmed to think is decent housing. It’s understandable, and it’s hard to blame anyone for making the association. After living in a dense and impoverished place, the sub-urban life looks great.

What then does this have to do with taxi’s for the underserved? The fact that land use and transportation are inextricably linked. By definition, the more sub-urban a development, the greater the distances between places. While the myth of the sub-urb is seductive, the reality is that it is completely dependent upon the automobile (or some form of personal transportation). Considering the pressing problems of the economically disadvantaged, access is one of the biggest issues: access to nutritious food, access to employment, and access to health care. The fact that the grocery store, jobs, and doctor are miles away is no big deal if you can hop in your car and drive to them. Not everyone can do that, however.

Low density, sub-urban development exacerbates the problems of the economically disadvantaged. Car ownership is expensive. Not only is the car a significant capital outlay; there is also fuel, maintenance and insurance to pay for. If one lives in a sub-urb (or less dense area) without a car, life becomes more difficult. How do you get groceries home from a store that’s five miles away? How does one ensure they consistently get to work on time by walking and using incomplete public transit services? How does one get their children to the emergency room in the middle of the night? When we face those sub-urban problems, then we are forced to develop sub-urban solutions such as scaling back subsidized transit in favor of subsidized taxis.

In theory, development that allows people to live closer to the necessities of everyday life provides the solution to the provision of dignified housing for all of our citizens. Density supports the type of mixed-use development that that put people in close proximity to jobs and good and services. Density also supports more robust mass transit options for the things that can’t be found within walking distance. As long as the bigger issue of poverty concentration is somehow addressed, density seems to provide solutions to many of the issues we face.

As compelling as that theory is, given our track record over the past eighty years, I can’t in good conscience insist upon it. We face a dilemma. It is the responsibility of the community to value and respect the input of the citizenry as we seek to provide dignified and affordable housing. It is also the responsibility of the community to develop in a way that is sensitive to both the resources of the community and the needs of those we are designing for. What happens when those two responsibilities conflict with one another?

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