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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

More walkable urban development is good. But is it good enough?

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 18, 2012

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Where would you rather be?  Here?

  Chevy Chase, MD (via Google Earth)

Or here?

  Cincinnati (by and courtesy of Stephen A Mouzon, c2011)

Let’s try it again.  This time assume you are an environmentalist who understands that we need more urban density in order to reduce suburban sprawl.  You’re hoping to persuade a skeptical citizens’ group.  Would you rather have something like this to show them?

  Arlington, VA (via Google Earth)

Or something like this?

  Union Square, San Francisco (by: gtsspeed, creative commons license)

Sadly, the newer developments represent what passes for transit-oriented smart growth these days.  I’ve been kind of a one-man band within the world of smart growth advocates saying that it’s not enough anymore just to advocate density.  We should be advocating density that appeals to more people, that we and future generations can be proud of. 

I know what some of you are thinking:  my comparisons are unfair, pitting new, suburban neo-downtowns against a historic district and a mature, true downtown.  To an extent, you’re right.  But let’s take another look at San Francisco’s Union Square:

  Union Square, San Francisco (by: Wally Gobetz, creative commons license)

We’re looking at an older, complete neighborhood, to be sure.  But there’s also something else going on:  there’s a great public space, and the buildings are of varied heights, widths, scales, and styles.  They are also varied in age, meaning that some older buildings were retained as newer ones came in.

This is an example of what architect Liz Dunn, director of the Preservation Green Lab for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, calls “urban grain.”  In an interview with Julia Levitt, published on The Atlantic’s National Channel website, she elaborates:

“There are many possible interpretations of the phrase ‘urban grain’ or ‘granularity’ that have to do with the scale and composition of cities. A lot of work has gone into analyzing the street grid -- for example, the size of blocks within a grid. I'm personally most interested in block-scapes, and the elements that coexist within a block or set of blocks.

“I think there is a set of attributes here that is both recognizable and useful for policy making. I think we could be measuring, for example, the economic and social activity that occurs on blocks that have a larger number and variety of skinnier buildings, compared to what you find on blocks occupied by large, homogeneous building fronts. Measuring how the pattern and mix of buildings impacts urban activity would provide a way to assign value to organic, incremental development that would be more quantitative than the cultural arguments for preservation, which would in turn inform land use policies. There are many win-win solutions for balancing urban grain with new development.”

While Dunn primarily considers the issue with respect to finding the proper mix of old and new buildings and styles, I think she’s on to something that also applies more broadly.  It may be more challenging to develop and zone blocks for variety, or to construct and implement public policy that fosters it, than it is to accept uniformity – and in this economy it’s challenging to do most anything with regard to real estate; but, if we fail to insist on the kinds of places that people instinctively love, we won’t succeed, and we won’t deserve to, either.  I’m not sure that some of the buildings shown at the top of the post aren’t just more sprawl in a vertical rather than horizontal form.

Here’s perhaps a more fair comparison, because these two sets of buildings are both relatively recently constructed and, in fact, within walking distance of each other and the same transit station.  Both photos were taken from Google Earth’s Street View feature.  Compare this one:

  Bethesda, MD (via Google Earth)

To this one:

  Bethesda, MD (via Google Earth)

For me, it’s a completely different feel.  The second development, part of Bethesda, Maryland’s terrific Bethesda Row area, is not just more inviting but also a bit smaller in scale, at five or six stories tops.  But that’s part of it, in my opinion.  To increase density enough to make a difference, we don’t always need to maximize it.  Much of the time a moderate amount of human-scaled urbanism will be far more appropriate than a high-rise.  This isn’t, or shouldn’t be, just about calculations of units per acre or square footage.  It’s also about what feels right to people.

Dunn seems to agree:

“In cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, some of the most economically and socially successful neighborhoods are the ones with a stock of older, three- to six-story buildings. These neighborhoods have unbelievable street life and entrepreneurial business activity, and they also already have density between 30 and 100 residential units per acre. According to the Urban Land Institute, the average density of urbanized areas in the United States is only seven units per acre.”

Here's another view of Bethesda Row, across the street from the photo above:

  Bethesda, MD (via Google Earth) 

I’ll indulge one more quote from Dunn, whom I have met and like.  In an article published in the magazine of the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects, she stresses the importance of making smart growth better:

“What all of us who care about growth management and climate change need to keep in mind is that density is merely a means to an end:  to make our cities successful, attractive places to live and work. A recent Pew Research survey showed that, for a variety of lifestyle reasons, American cities still compete poorly with their own suburbs in terms of attracting all but the young, the old and the poor. If the urban neighborhoods we create turn out to be as generic as our suburban ones, we certainly can't expect that to change.”

I completely agree.

Moderating and improving the form of density is not the only improvement we need, of course.  "Smart growth" without green infrastructure, green buildings, parks and great public spaces, just to name a few others, isn’t particularly worthy of the name in my opinion.  But I’ll get back to those topics on another day.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channel.

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Alex B.Jan 18 2012 09:56 AM

I agree with the general thrust of your comments here, Kaid - density alone isn't enough. We always need to throw in some more 'D's - density, diversity, design.

I think that you cherry pick some of your examples, however.

The one from Bethesda gets me because the first shot is looking lengthwise down the street. You wouldn't be able to notice detail on the building facades if you wanted to. The second, better shot instead focuses on the public realm and doesn't show the other side of the street at all.

At a minimum, it's not an apples to apples comparison, and while I understand this isn't meant to be a comprehensive take on all things in urban design, I think your analysis hints at some relationships that just aren't true.

For one, I'd love to see the actual built densities that accompany all of the photos. Height alone is misleading.

That said, I disagree with the idea that there's an absolute trade-off between human scaled design and more density. Indeed, I think that's mostly a design question. And we can do (and have done) a great deal of work to achieve a great deal of density while still supporting human scales at the street level. By building continuous streetwalls and detailed retail frontages, you can achieve the same effect largely independent of the building heights above - even just a modest setback is all you likely need.

I'm hesitant to frame human-scaled design as a trade-off between modest and greater density - I don't think that's true at all. The density doesn't need to be 'moderated' (which I read as reduced, or not increased as much as it could be), but rather it needs to be designed.

FJan 18 2012 10:01 AM

There is perhaps a subtly different lesson to be drawn from this, also. In established but gentrifying and densifying areas, NIMBYs sometimes claim that dense developments "don't fit the fabric of the neighborhood" or somesuch. To which the answer appears to be, do you really want your entire neighborhood to look the same?

Places like San Francisco, where building anything in an established neighborhood is incredibly hard, are now building entire new neighborhoods of 4-6 story stucco in a dizzying number of shades of beige... what you get if you build an entire neighborhood at the same time will inevitably be boring, because there's a dominant style of now.

This sounds to me like an argument for more organic, less over-regulated and over-sued urban development. Can we keep environmental regulations outside cities and ditch onerous zoning requirements and NIMBY power to force scaled-back developments within them?

FJan 18 2012 10:03 AM

Oh, and the same regulations privilege big, homogeneous developments because it's easier to get through them if you're a big developer with clout...

Steve StofkaJan 18 2012 12:11 PM

It occurs to me that Ms. Dunn is talking about the exact same thing as Jane Jacobs when she stresses "the need for buildings of varied ages" in Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Lee EpsteinJan 18 2012 01:19 PM

Good post, Kaid. I respectfully disagree with Alex. There is a definite relationship that human beings have with the envelope of their immediate surroundings, and feelings of security, comfort, well-being (etc.) flow from that relationship. In urban settings, that's why some sense of enclosure can be good, but too much enclosure can be somewhat claustrophobic; it's why a human-scaled streetscape feels right, but a wind-swept, completely open street,sidewalk, or plaza usually feels unnerving; it's why single buildings with overwhelming bulk, well, overwhelm, but blocks which are less uniformly designed -- with interesting changes in height, setback, fenestration, and style -- do not. (This is, of course, not always true -- the wonderful, narrow streets of Prague or the always-lively Piazza San Marco in Venice tell that tale.) But along most urban streets, while good design can solve some of these problems (with Alex's groundfloor detailing, for example), maxing out on density with bulk and height usually proves a design challenge not often met very well.

PaytonJan 18 2012 03:00 PM

I'd agree that it's almost all about design. The low- and mid-rise floors are most important, to be sure, since humans' peripheral vision is weakest when looking up. However, there are plenty of historic skyscraper districts that maintain a great sense of place and small scale at the street level (Broadway in Los Angeles is a thrill to walk down), and even some which maintain good sunlight at street level (just was at Rockefeller Center for the first time in a while and reminded of that crucial detail).

Encouraging both smaller parcel sizes -- for exactly that granularity, and to ensure greater diversity -- and mid-rise heights both ask huge concessions from our current bigger-is-better development paradigm. Of course a developer will build out to whatever envelope the regulations will allow to recoup their costs, will charge high initial rents that only the most reliably profitable (i.e., bland) retailers can afford, and often won't spend a premium on the sort of pedestrian-scale details that really create a great sidewalk environment. Yet other factors also result in these squat, boring buildings. Occupants will pay a premium for "ground-related" space or for high-rise space with a view, but not for the mid-rise floors. (Compare that to the 18th and 19th centuries, when the 2nd floor commanded the highest rent as it were above street dust but not a long walk up.) High-rise life safety and structural requirements make a 6-story building almost as expensive as a 12-story building. Requirements for exit stairs (like restricting scissor stairs), and tenants' desire for reconfigurable spaces, both fatten floorplates. Municipalities set build-to lines for bases (correct) and, fearful of oddly height-obsessed NIMBYs, set unrealistically low height limits.

On a lighter note, I think it's tragicomic how "Ballston" has become shorthand locally for big and boring development.

CatherineJan 18 2012 06:53 PM

I was startled by this post, because that first picture (with the Chico's) is about a block and a half from my apartment. I cross that intersection every time I go to the grocery store.

It's not a pretty neighborhood, I agree. But it's an odd little area affected by a lot of unusual factors. It's in Maryland, about a block from the DC border. The photo was taken about a block from a metro station entrance. People want to live here to be in a MD school district (or have access to other MD amenities) while having a short, easy commute via the Metro. The market for housing in this particular spot (and Bethesda, one stop further up the Metro line) is huge. The DC height restrictions mean the giant apartment complexes that exist on this side of the border couldn't happen a few blocks away. There's a ton of very high-end retail, enough to make me wonder if retailers are looking for Maryland laws or tax rates while having access to a DC customer base, as well as a large number of people commuting to office jobs in the area. The road pictured in the article is a major arterial, one of the connectors between the beltway and downtown, not a typical street.

I just circumvented the Wikipedia Sopa blackout to learn that Friendship Village, where this photo was taken, has the highest population density of any designated census area in the United States. It's all high-rise apartments, with significant setbacks and courtyards that are necessary to keep the whole thing from feeling claustrophobic from the street and from inside the buildings. I've found it extremely livable, and it is much, much denser than the Cincinnati example it's contrasted with.

I don't disagree with the point of the post - good design matters, and plopping huge ugly buildings down randomly isn't great policy. I do think the particular example of Friendship Heights has a lot of complicating factors that don't apply to most city blocks.

Jon ReedsJan 19 2012 12:42 PM

Great post, Kaid.
The truth about urban density is that it's a bit like eating. Both starvation and gluttony are bad things.
You are never going to get attractive urbanism by plonking down big-box buildings and separating them by multi-lane highways, however good the other elements might be.
Basically we need subtle, intelligent urban design. And it is possible.

Bonnie WilliamsJan 19 2012 02:33 PM

In the spirit of William Whyte you have my complete commiseration on the subject of urban density issues through you insightful visual examples exhibited. Scale matters, in my opinion. A vaulting tunnel of silver skyscrapers gives the sense of inclusion into a landscape bigger than us; as when we look to the heavens (something larger than our own lives). However, the smaller storied buildings and scapes provide the humanly tolerable physical and visual inclusion for us to be able to conduct our every and day to day efforts and affairs with a sense of place and civility that provides a human sensibility to the community from which it springs forth.

FLHJan 19 2012 02:43 PM

Thoughts from a rank amateur with no particular axe to grind. First, I wasn't sure what picture I was "supposed" to like. The Chico's neighborhood reminded me of University City in Philadelphia, which is to me a pretty agreeable neighborhood (tho I did once see a homeless guy with a lead pipe chase a UPS man down the street there in broad daylight). I like the set-back little strip mall. The second picture looks like any of dozens of depressed small towns I've seen. A Main St. like that in an economically vibrant older suburb, however, can be busy and very attractive-- but watch out for the traffic, even if it is just two lanes! The third picture looks like there might be some activity on the ground floors of those buildings--coffee stands or shopping. I hope so. The office buildings there and in Bethesda also seem to have some nice public sculpture out front, too. And, sorry, as for Bethesda Row, I find nothing lamer than sitting in a sidewalk cafe with a stream of foot traffic on one side of me and a parked car on the other.

Liz DunnJan 19 2012 06:14 PM

Kaid thanks so much for this post – you’ve summarized my thinking better than I ever have (and with better pictures ). And yes to the reader who pointed out that Jane Jacobs was on to this 40 years ago -- although it's amazing that her thinking has to this day had so little impact on urban policy-making. Reading through the responses, I think we're all in violent agreement that density is neither a problem nor a panacea, but rather an inappropriate topline focus for what it really takes to build successful cities. In the bigger picture of both climate change mitigation and land (and watershed) conservation, our job is get people to choose city life, whatever that takes, not split hairs over what qualifies as city. I think we know ‘city’ when we see it – it’s access to work and daily amenities without getting in a car, but it’s also an evocative and energizing street life, for which there is no simple metric (although I’m talking to my friends at Walk Score about that …).

Liz DunnJan 19 2012 06:26 PM

I also meant to add, at the risk of sounding simplistic, that I think evocative (and functional) neighborhoods boil down to skinny buildings. No kidding -- for all our handwringing over height and contextualism, what matters most is the mix, and you can’t have a mix with only one or two buildings per block. This is about more than the street level facades; small parcels allow opportunities for smaller more innovative owner-developers and for owner-occupied businesses. Skinny buildings should be filling in the missing teeth between the old buildings that we should be reusing instead of tearing down. And a great thing about skinny buildings is they can be unapologetically modern or traditional or simply bad, and it doesn’t matter that much, because they are part of the eclectic mix of other skinny buildings on their block. This again is Jane Jacobs stuff. Granted, the economics of small parcel development are tricky as Payton Chung alludes to. I debate this endlessly with my developer and policy friends and don’t pretend to have it even close to figured out. My own skinny projects in Seattle have done better I think in terms of profit and value than nearby larger ones, but are more expensive to build and run. Waiving minimum parking helps, as do city-run pay-in funds with appropriately scaled contributions for things like sidewalk improvements, utility rebuilds and green space. But making Jane Jacobs urbanism a reality is also I think going to rely on a different breed of investor, and probably a different kind of bank – ones that are more local and with long-term vested personal interests in the neighborhoods where they do business – i.e. we need to bring in the “locavore” money.

Steven N. O'GradyJan 20 2012 12:46 AM

I think we are going in the wrong direction altogether. Sea levels are rising and space is scarce. Therefore the solution lies in going 3-D and eliminating roadways. My ideal city would consist of a group of hills in which the city is nestled. All buildings conjoined and integrated into these 'hills'. The 'fill' is obtained by downward excavation of a good proportion of the living/working spaces and the tunnels leading to it which service the access. The city blocks are much larger, and large elevators bring people/goods in from beneath, and waste/recylables out (all containerized). The surfaces of each hill are dotted with heliports, balconies, lighting/ventilation ducts, but mainly form artificial gardens, parklands and intensive farming areas/domes, etc. Large water reservoirs internally and externally form heat-sinks, humidity/airconditioning and recreation sources.
COPY THE TERMITES. The whole current approach is piecemeal, temporary and wasteful. In addition there is little security, firefighting capability, energy conservation and far too many cars in gridlock.Think about incorporating at least fifty city blocks at a time into one large 'HILLDING'.

Richard CampbellJan 22 2012 11:49 PM

"Much of the time a moderate amount of human-scaled urbanism will be far more appropriate than a high-rise. "

It has nothing to do with the height of the buildings, it is the human scale details at street level that make good urbanism. After all, even a two-story building is way taller than a person so to call even that human scale is a bit ridiculous.

There are thousands of miles of one story buildings in big box wastelands across the country that are just horrible urbanism. Conversely, in places like New York City, there are some places with very tall buildings that are great pedestrian environments.

dan reed!Jan 23 2012 12:52 PM

I agree with Richard, Payton and Alex. Jan Gehl says that people can recall the first floor (maybe two floors) of buildings on a street they frequent with intense detail, but you could make up facts about the upper floors and they'd probably believe them. What matters is what happens at the street, and I think that's the lesson to gain from this article. You can get a lot of density with low-rise buildings, but sometimes you need taller buildings, and they needn't be seen as the enemy. Vancouver's done well to create "point towers" with a base of two or three-story rowhouses or retail buildings, thus providing density while activating the street.

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