How to Densify

Let me make one other quick point on the topic of density and productivity. If you read Ed Glaeser, you see him arguing, in compelling fashion, that dense collections of human capital are the secret to innovation and growth. And I believe him. From this position, he’ll argue against foolish restrictions on new housing supply. But his main emphasis, which appears again and again, in column after column, is that the most important investment America can make is in education. Smart cities drive growth, and the way to grow better and faster is to make Americans smarter. Indeed, in his view education is very nearly the only worthwhile urban investment — far more so than infrastructure.

I strongly support wise investments in education, but I think Glaeser is making a bit of a mistake here. One of the strongest points in Tyler Cowen’s new book The Great Stagnation is that America has exhausted its low-hanging educational fruit. It was relatively easy to move the bulk of the population from next-to-no education, to universal primary and secondary school, to a situation in which nearly half of all young people go to college. The gains from here on out will be difficult to achieve. They’ll involve high-intensity remedial efforts at all stages of the educational process, to better prepare marginal students. That’s worth doing, but it’s not easy or cheap, and it’s not likely to produce big gains in national innovation and growth.

It seems to me that the low-hanging fruit here is in making productive cities more dense. It’s hard to get the population more educated, but maybe it’s not as hard to move a larger share of the population to richer cities. But how can we do that?

Obviously, it’s not going to be easy to get suburban homeowners to agree to major relaxations in land-use rules in their neighborhoods. But one development does seem promising: the use of new transit nodes to support high-density redevelopment of old urban and semi-urban neighborhoods. You can’t get people to agree to an apartment building where their neighbors’ gorgeous old colonial used to be. But you can get them to agree to upzoning of commercial areas that used to be home to ill-considered garden apartment complexes and strip malls, especially if you focus that redevelopment around transit. As it turns out, walkable development is in high demand.

The Washington area is home to many examples of this kind of transit-oriented redevelopment. Tysons is the biggest and most ambitious of the projects that fall into this category, but there are plenty of neighborhoods that fit this description along Metro lines, around in-fill Metro stations, and along planned streetcar routes. Many other cities have had success with this strategy, as well. There would be more examples of this pattern if there were more opportunities for it, but precious few neighborhoods have the transit access that seems to be a key catalyst for dense redevelopments.

I understand why people like Glaeser are skeptical of this approach and reluctant to endorse it. I don’t think Glaeser has much confidence (rightly) in the federal government’s ability to deploy transportation funds wisely. And I think he is extremely wary of the tendency to try and use transit as a redevelopment tool for struggling cities. And he’s right to be worried. I do think that better connections between struggling cities and thriving cities would be good for the struggling cities. I don’t know that that’s necessarily in the best interest of the country as a whole (should we save Detroit or just try to make it easy for Detroiters to move to dynamic cities elswhere?). I do think that the best way to use transportation funds is in new transit capacity in the most successful, most productive cities, the better to facilitate new growth there.

Tyler Cowen would make a public choice argument against this strategy, and maybe he’s right. Maybe what appears to be low-hanging economic fruit is actually defended by a dense thicket of thorny political roadblocks. And so perhaps we should just revise our growth expectations down. But perhaps not. I think that understanding this potential avenue to faster and better growth is the first step to trying to get it on the agenda.


  1. David Sucher says:

    I think you have the cart before the horse.

    The urge to densify has got I backwards.

    Density is a byproduct of creating interesting high-amenity places.

    You start with good places — with a public commitment based on public understanding and you do it iteratively.

    Then density follows.

  2. The problem with just going after strip malls is that there is a reason why they are strip malls. Because they have low land values which keeps them low density. The biggest moves we can make is find areas that have land values that are just on the cusp of allowing higher densities. There are all kinds of corridors that are proximate to downtowns and major activity centers. If you upgrade the transit on these and change the zoning, you’ll see a change because with the access you’re transferring the market from downtown or the center. I think this is something that people miss when discussing urbanism.

  3. David Sucher says:

    But don’t forget that Ryan limited transformation to “…redevelopment of old urban and semi-urban neighborhoods.”

    He’s not suggesting — which I think is correct — that overcoming inertia in areas without any semblance, even historical, of urbanism is too much.

  4. BeyondDC says:

    It’s not at all true that strip malls are strip malls because there’s only demand for low density in those places. In many, many examples (probably most within a 20-mile radius of DC) strip malls are strip malls because that’s all that zoning allows them to be. It’s literally illegal to transform most of them into anything else.

    The places that have figured that out and changed the zoning are seeing relatively rapid redevelopment along more urban lines. Columbia Pike in Arlington, Route 7 in the City of Falls Church, Rt 355 in Montgomery County near Red line Metro stations.

    Furthermore, there is already tremendous demand in the suburbs for multi-family housing. Slightly less than half the total housing units in Fairfax County are single-family detached. Less than half! About a quarter are townhouses and a quarter apartments. That means more than half the housing units in suburban Fairfax County are already in forms that are fundamentally more suited to urban layout than suburban.

    All we have to do to redevelop every suburban strip corridor in the region is to build the apartments that were going to happen in the suburbs anyway in the corridors on top of the strip malls, rather than in their own little single-use apartment pods.

    Mixed-use redevelopment of commercial strips is going to be *the* story in the suburbs over the next 40 years.

  5. I agree BDC, I just worry that people will think if we slap a different zoning designation on any corridor that it will magically change. In places where there is a market, it will work, but in places where it doesn’t exist, nothing will happen. There needs to be strategic thinking about where markets need a slight push with more frequent transit or other means to get them over the edge.

  6. sourcreamus says:

    I think you are misunderstanding Glaeser’s point about education. What he is saying is that we need to invest in education, not to make our citizens smarter but rather to make city public schools acceptable to young professionals who would like to live in cities but currently live in suburbs because the schools are so much better. Right now the choice is live in the suburbs or pay for expensive private schools. This drives more people to the suburbs than transit issues do.

  7. If density is so important then why is far more high tech in Silicon Valley as compared to San Francisco? The ideal level of density needed for high tech is probably below the ideal density for commuter rail.