Monday, November 29, 2010

Density Doesn't Solve Everything

Jane Jacobs
I'm a huge fan of population density. I have lived in and visited other cities with a lot more density than Detroit. I've seen its benefits on a firsthand basis. I've also been known to thrust Jane Jacobs's books in the faces of random people and urge them to read her works.

When Mayor Dave Bing started talking about increasing Detroit's population density, I was pleasantly surprised. There was a moment when I thought that we had an administration that got it; one that was able to move Detroit forward. Unfortunately, a year later, all we have is talk.

The worst part of this is that Detroiters still pay a tax burden that is roughly double national averages and we still suffer through public services that are almost non-existent. There seems to be a general acknowledgement that we need to change these things. However, we as a community have not made any real progress towards improving these matters over the past year.

I have, however, heard several people postulate that once a plan to improve Detroit's density is finalized and implemented things will start to improve. I have even heard people argue, in complete seriousness, that improving Detroit's population density is a prerequisite for improving basic city services.

This argument is, in my opinion, downright terrifying. The fact that I keep hearing this means that a sound urban principle, such as population density, has become nothing more than a corporate buzzword that is thrown around in lieu of actual ideas or actions.

For everyone who believes that Detroit cannot improve its core city services or reduce its tax burden until it improve its population density, I ask you to consider a few things:

  • Albuquerque, New Mexico;
  • Atlanta, Georgia;
  • Austin, Texas;
  • Cleveland, Ohio;
  • Columbus, Ohio;
  • Charlotte, North Carolina;
  • Dallas, Texas;
  • Denver, Colorado;
  • El Paso, Texas;
  • Fort Worth, Texas;
  • Houston, Texas;
  • Indianapolis, Indiana;
  • Jacksonville, Florida;
  • Las Vegas, Nevada;
  • Louisville, Kentucky;
  • Memphis, Tennessee;
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin;
  • Nashville, Tennessee;
  • Oklahoma City, Oklahoma;
  • Portland, Oregon;
  • Phoenix, Arizona;
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania;
  • San Antonio, Texas;
  • San Diego, California;
  • San Jose, California; and
  • Tucson, Arizona.
What do these twenty five cities have in common, you ask?

And how does this relate to discussions of Detroit's population density and public services?

The answer is a simple one: each of these major American cities has less population density than Detroit does. In spite of this, these other cities are able to provide police and fire protection that are on par with national averages and they do so on a consistent basis. Moreover, they do so with a lower average tax burden than what Detroit imposes.

My point is here is simply to show that, while population density is a great thing, it is not a magical elixir nor is it an insurmountable impediment. Higher density will not turn on the street lights in Detroit anymore than lower density has prevented Atlanta, Dallas, or Pittsburgh from turning them on. Higher density will not keep firehouses from closing in Detroit anymore than lower density has caused Columbus, Memphis, or Portland to close even more than us.

As we consider our future as a community, I believe it is important for us to keep in mind what population density will and will not do for us. Increased population density, for example, will make it easier for retail businesses to thrive in Detroit since it means more customers nearby. This, in turn, translates into more jobs for Detroiters and more tax revenue for the local government.

However, there are distinct limits to what population density will do. A few hundred police officers will not materialize simply because Detroit has more people living in a given square mile. An incompetent city official will not become more competent as soon as our population becomes more dense.

Detroit has not gained any benefits in basic city services from having a higher population density than Cleveland, Milwaukee, or most other cities. It is extremely doubtful we'll gain such a benefit by improving it further.

Population density is more than a buzzword. I am disappointed to hear public officials, both elected and appointed, use it as such.
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