skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Safe Chemicals
Defending the Clean Air Act

Kaid Benfield’s Blog

The man who thinks Manhattan isn't dense enough

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 19, 2011 in Living Sustainably

, , , , ,
Share | | |

  Times Square, NYC (by: Randy von Liski, creative commons license)

New York County, which comprises all of Manhattan, is the densest county in America, at 71,166 people per square mile.  It is twice as dense as number-two Brooklyn (which, incidentally, is followed by two more New York City counties, Bronx and Queens, at numbers three and four, respectively).  Manhattan is over four times as dense as number-five San Francisco.

This makes me wonder about Ed Glaeser, a libertarian economist who is the latest hero of some of my new urbanist friends, who have been promoting the heck out of his upcoming speech at their annual meeting.  Glaeser thinks Manhattan could be so much better if, you know, we just got rid of some of those pesky rules that get in the way of building still more density.  I’m not exaggerating, and I’ll give some examples in a minute.

But, first, I want to add some context, because Glaeser has some very important, and valid, points to make about the inherent efficiency of cities.  Manhattan skyline, from Empire State Building (by: Mike Lee, creative commons license)They are essentially the same points made two years ago by David Owen in his book Green Metropolis (and his earlier essay, Green Manhattan):  when people are clustered in cities, they take up less space; emit far less energy, particularly from driving; and generate more economic productivity, than they would if spread out.  The first two of those are fundamental tenets of smart growth, actually, and my new urbanist friends are not wrong to be glad that Glaeser has joined the chorus.  (I agree with the third point, too.)  He also supports a carbon tax.

Glaeser’s current book is called The Triumph of the City.  It has received a lot of attention and praise, not least because its author is an intellectual who does his homework and packs a lot of detail into his writing.  He has also been in the media nonstop, or so it seems, for about a year or so (e.g., The New York Times; NPR; The Atlantic; Neil Peirce’s column for Citiwire; The Next American City).  Either Glaeser or his publicist is an awesome promoter, a skill I sometimes wish I had.

He previewed the book in The Atlantic, in an article called “How Skyscrapers Can Save the City.”  Here’s Glaeser’s pro-density argument in a nutshell:

“The magic of cities comes from their people, but those people must be well served by the bricks and mortar that surround them. Cities need roads and buildings that enable people to live well and to connect easily with one another . . . in the most desirable cities, whether they’re on the Hudson River or the Arabian Sea, height is the best way to keep prices affordable and living standards high.”

It’s basically about efficient use of land, and I agree with much of it, though personally I think there is a lot of room for more density in most American cities and suburbs without making it all about skyscrapers.  I also agree, to an extent, with other points Glaeser makes in that article and in the book about overzealous NIMBYs and over-prescriptive zoning.

  NYC's Greenwich Village (by: Benjamin Dumas, creative commons license)

But here’s the rub:  a lot of what makes cities great is not just their efficiency, but also some inefficiencies that make them attractive and livable.  Take historic preservation, which seems to really annoy Glaeser:

“New York’s vast historic districts, which include thousands of utterly undistinguished structures, don’t accomplish that goal. Worse, they impede new construction, keeping real estate in New York City enormously expensive (despite a housing crash), especially in its most desirable, historically protected areas. It’s time to ask whether New York’s big historic districts make sense.”

He doesn’t mention that those “vast historic districts” haven’t prevented Manhattan from becoming over four times as dense as San Francisco, which as noted is America’s densest city outside of the boroughs of New York. 

NYC skyscraper under construction (by: Fernando X. Sanchez, creative commons license)Nor have they prevented the building of some 20 new towers of 400 feet or more in height (roughly 35+ stories) currently under construction in New York City, with many more in the pipeline.  (By comparison, Boston only has 27 buildings total of 400 or more feet in height.)  Louis J. Coletti of the Building Trades Employers’ Association told the New York Times in 2008 that, immediately prior to the recession, construction generated more than $30 billion in economic activity in New York in one year.   Not to say that there isn't another spot or three where yet another skyscraper should go, but that doesn’t sound like an overly restrictive buildiing environment to me.

(Glaeser is not entirely wrong, by the way, to suggest that some buildings preserved as “historic” don’t deserve to be.  But that’s a different discussion.)

By now you won’t be surprised to learn that Glaeser doesn’t think much of environmental protection, either:

“Homes in coastal California use much less energy than homes in most other places in the country.  New building in California, as opposed to Texas, reduces America’s carbon emissions.  Yet, instead of fighting to make it easier to build in California, environmentalists have played a significant role in stemming the growth of America’s greenest cities.”

Really?  Metro San Diego grew ten percent in the last decade, about the same as the country as a whole; it added 281,000 people.  San Diego (by: Nick Chill Photography, creative commons license)San Jose grew six percent, adding over a hundred thousand people.  Los Angeles didn’t grow much percentage-wise, but there is no evidence that environmentalism played the slightest role in that; LA still added 463,000 people, more than the entire population of the city of Kansas City, Missouri.

Look, I know more than most that NIMBYs sometimes wave a faux-environmental flag to oppose development that would actually benefit the environment.  I’ve predicated the last two decades of my career to being pro-growth and pro-density in the right places and in the right ways, so I know Glaeser has a point; but, as with so many of his points, he carries it too far. 

The truth is that environmental regulation makes cities cleaner, healthier and more attractive.  Metro Portland, with some of the greenest laws anywhere, grew 50 percent faster than the country as a whole in the last decade, in no small part because it’s a great place to live.  dowmtown Portland (by: EPA Smart Growth)Metro Portland also illustrates another point about environmentalism:  when we protect land outside cities and suburbs, the cities and suburbs become stronger.

Fortunately, some urbanists have begun to parse the nuances in Glaeser’s work.  Seattle’s Liz Dunn, for example, notes that what makes the best cities is not tall buildings per se but a granular multiplicity of building styles that foster a diversity of form and function.  She is ultimately pro-density, but incrementally:

“It isn’t reflected in static measures of square footage or units or building heights, but rather in a slow but steady turning of the dial toward a higher intensity of uses, connection and access, resource efficiency, character and identity, and choices.  Jane [Jacobs] would no doubt remind us that the critical issue isn’t what density should look like, or how much is enough, but rather how we insert it more surgically and gracefully.”

Amen to that.  Mike Mehaffy adds that sometimes tower blocks don’t deliver on their claims because of their monolithic nature, and that mid-rise buildings also produce environmental benefits. 

Philip Langdon of New Urban News, like myself, grew tired of Glaeser’s excesses:

“I enjoyed my first couple of hours with this book, but the further I read, the more I was dismayed by contradictions that make Triumph of the City less a coherent urban vision than a collection of bombs and barbs tossed at historic preservationists, NYC's East Village (by: Scott Beale/Laughing Squid, creative commons license)environmentalists, labor unions, government regulators, mass transit enthusiasts, and other seemingly benighted souls.”

Langdon also correctly observes that in many cases it is suburbs, not inner cities, that are most in need of adding density.

His colleague at New Urban News, Rob Steuteville, also has a few words to say:

“Tearing down historic edifices to make way for 50-story buildings will do nothing to change the biggest land use issues facing the New York region and other US metropolises.”


Before leaving the topic, I want to return to a point I made earlier, because it’s important:  Glaeser is right in his central points about cities and density.  They are good for both the environment and the economy, so part of me is glad that his views are getting attention.  My issue is with the lack of nuance and the failure to give enough credit to the benefits of preservation and environmental protection, both of which enrich our well-being and that of cities.

Oh - and there’s one more point:  Manhattan may not be dense enough for Glaeser, but apparently an affluent outer suburb of Boston is.  Because that’s where he lives, on six and a half acres.

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.

Share | | |


Jon ReedsMay 19 2011 09:48 AM

I think you're right that the basic issue is efficient use of land and also that there's plenty of room for densification in towns and cities in both the US and UK without putting up high-rise buildings. They have their place, a few of them, in the very centre of major cities, but it's quite possible to have appropriate densities in towns and cities that don't involve any tower blocks at all. The late Victorian and Edwardian cities built more than 100 years ago pulled off this feat, so why can't we?
The reason why high-rise isn't the panacea some of the more extreme urbanists believe is the same reason that we need to conserve historic areas. We have to reverse the wooly minded 100-year drift to low-density suburbs in the bizarre belief they are attractive places to live (tell that to any kid who has spent their teenage years waiting for buses). To do that we have to convince people that our towns and cities are attractive places to live and work.
I don't say this can never be achieved with high-rise, but it's hard. Yet look at the opportunities medium-rise offers (and I'm deliberately not defining it; it depends on the circumstances). You can have tall, thin houses standing within their own areas of defensive and amenity space which are many, many times more attractive than flats in a block, even when floor areas are the same. You can keep such towns permeable. Pedestrians don't get blown around by the strong winds high buildings create. They are dense enough to make investment in rail-based transit worthwhile. And because land has been used efficiently, room can be made for open space with a clear conscience, etc., etc..
And you're right about it being suburbs that most urgently need to densify. The trouble is they're where any change is likely to be fought most strongly.
Jon Reeds

Michael LewynMay 19 2011 10:30 AM

Metro growth isn't really the issue in California. The problem is that (except in San Francisco) the growth is so evenly divided around the region that no place is dense enough to support much transit. In other words, if the city and the suburbs of San Jose or San Diego are growing at the same rate, this is not necessarily a good thing, because then neither city nor suburb is dense enough to support much transit.

It would be better (from a transit-oriented perspective) to make the cores of such cities much denser, rather than to make the suburbs slightly denser.

Kaid @ NRDCMay 19 2011 10:53 AM

Michael, I think there's a better and more nuanced position than the two extremes you posit: We need stronger, more walkable and lively centers in suburbs - more density on the right places - to create both on-site environmental benefits and to make transit hubs work better in both directions. Parts of central cities also need strengthening. But I think leaving the suburbs the way they are would produce a terrible outcome for both the environment and for people.

T. CaineMay 19 2011 02:40 PM


Excellent discussion.

I think I side with Glaeser on a fair portion of his points. Being a New York resident, I have a deep respect for the level of efficiency that Manhattan is able to attain due to its position as one of the few examples of what American cities can actually accomplish. A city's success is based off of the efficiencies gleaned from the reflexive benefits of different occupants--impossible without density.

The truth is New York could be much denser than it is now and it doesn't necessarily mean we are building more skyscrapers on top of each other. There are vast areas of the island that still sit below five stories, like Harlem. It is only a matter of time before expansion pushes growth above the park and I say, full steam ahead.

Conservation (namely the Landmarks Preservation Commission in NYC) is admittedly a sticky issue. There is good and bad, but it is undeniably true that in Landmarked districts the LPC has absolute power over all exterior development and design decision with virtually no means of recourse. One could argue that this is inherently dangerous.

There is also no reason why tall buildings can't contribute to environmental protection. You have a construction picture of One Bryant Park up there (which I had the good fortune to help work on) that stands as one of the greenest skyscrapers in the world. I will grant you that tall buildings do have to work much harder to create a contiguous streetscape in the vein of a "neighborhood." Not impossible, but certainly more challenging.

Lastly, I do have to empathize with Michael a bit when it comes to the addition of density and where it goes. It is true we can add density in suburbs as well as cities, but filling out suburbs is much more difficult with much less return. Suburbs, as we know them in America, are inherently inefficient. Unlike many architects, I like to believe that a sustainable version of suburban living is possible, but I don't think it looks much (at all) like most of what exists today.

Victor DoverMay 19 2011 03:02 PM

Useful post, Kaid. The CNU is inviting Prof. Glaeser to engage him and question him and help him improve his positions, not just to clap for him. I'm going to introduce him, and make exactly that point to the audience. Come ask more hard questions. I've told him to expect tough responses on 1) skyscrapers 2) historic preservation and 3) environmental regulation.

PaytonMay 19 2011 03:43 PM

Nowhere, it seems, does Glaeser stop to consider that the city's "most desirable, historically protected areas" might owe their desirability to their historic protections. With that, he makes a classical (so to speak) economist's mistake of only seeing utility in terms of dollars, without recognizing that humans aren't efficiency obsessed robots. Instead, we prize human scaled places.

Also, the concept of diminishing returns seems to have eluded him. Yes, agglomeration has network effects, but it doesn't scale linearly. One 100-story building is less efficient than two 50-story buildings in many ways -- much longer elevator rides, much higher structural requirements since wind loads increase exponentially. (Sorry, bub, even economics can't trump physics.) He seems blind to similar built-environment cost thresholds, where marginal costs exceed marginal returns; the most obvious example is the difference between 4-6 floor buildings and 6-8 floor buildings, where the latter requires much costlier fireproof concrete whereas the former can be built with much cheaper wood framing.

Most saliently, congestion negates the positive benefits of agglomeration above certain densities. At a certain point, congestion overwhelms any marginal benefit from agglomeration, and there's only so much that techniques like congestion charging can do when (as in parts of Manhattan or Hong Kong) even the sidewalks are maddeningly impassable.

Lewyn has an interesting point: the recent Brookings release shows that California cities are actually better than average at providing bus service to their suburbs, but there still aren't many jobs at the other end of the bus lines. In many California cities, like San Jose, downtown densification is truly a no-brainer.

Chuck WolfeMay 19 2011 10:32 PM

Thanks for weighing in, Kaid. In early March, I responded to the short form Professor Glaeser blog piece on Seattle--in my view, there is a certain risk of any of this discussion absent experiential factors:

Lydia DePillisMay 20 2011 06:25 AM

Thankyou for this, Kaid - especially for pointing out Glaeser's hypocrisy in living out in the suburbs, which he explains guiltily in the book, but which is pretty much inexcusable.

Here's another critique from a while ago:

Clark TaylorMay 20 2011 10:37 AM

I don't think you want to compare city to city. The fact that NYC has more tall buildings in the pipeline than in all of Boston does mean that those buildings are enough. You have to look at each city in its own context.

And there is no doubt that the HP in NYC has greatly increased housing prices in Manhattan and made it all but unlivable for the middle class, families and other who would otherwise desire to live there if they could afford it.

ScottMay 20 2011 10:42 AM

"Langdon also correctly observes that it is suburbs, not inner cities, that are most in need of adding density."

More suburban density? Hogwash. How many times have you heard that, only to see the result as a magnified disaster of the previous situation. Suburbs can be very dense, but stupidly arranged - as they often are.

Perhaps eliminating the stupidity of non-contextual existing zoning regulations, that would allow the building of neighborhoods that once flourished, but are not 'illegal' according to most zoning laws.

Hmmm....I sound like a Duany acolyte....?

kristyMay 20 2011 12:40 PM

i appreciate a lot of the really smart points about why denser cities are important, but manhattan is DEFINITELY dense enough. making it denser will not improve the quality of life. it will only make a far too overcrowded city much worse. navigating the streets of manhattan is already a nightmare. traffic here is terrible. and i don't really think it's going to help prices at all. maybe it'll help rent costs slightly, but food & other goods will still be ridiculously expensive.

T. CaineMay 20 2011 05:07 PM

As a note, I don't think it is inherently true that adding density to Manhattan and adding congestion are co-dependent. The problems with the island's congestion problems are not because it has too many people, but because it has too many cars.

As more of our streets are returned to pedestrian travel (like the new insertions at Times Square, Herald Square, Madison Square and Union Square) the more undesirable it will be to drive--a deterrent for cars that helps pedestrians in the same breath.

The more dense and more walkable a city becomes the less reason there is to have resident car traffic there at all. In time, Manhattan should reach the point where the only cars on the road are taxis, commercial/delivery trucks and service vehicles. Everyone else should be stowing a car on the other side of the rivers or paying for a temporary visitors pass to come in and out.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Send Me Updates About: Kaid Benfield

As new content on your chosen topic gets posted, you'll receive an automated email via FeedBurner. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Feeds: Stay Plugged In

Feeds: Kaid Benfield’s blog