It is true that people living in NY have much much lower carbon footprints than those who live in lower density areas. It’s also true that it is a highly desirable place to live. So wouldn’t the way to accomplish more people living in high density areas like NY be to replicate it elsewhere? Or should we insist on cramming more people into NY against NYers’ will and make it a less desirable place to live?
Wouldn’t it be better for 8 million people to live in NY and have it serve as a beacon for a great, lower carbon footprint lifestyle? If you cram an extra million people in, sure, you lower their carbon footprints, but you may also make high density urban living far less attractive and less likely to be replicated around the country.
The first point to make is that New York isn’t just attractive because of the way it was built. It’s also attractive because it’s New York, and New York has a very strong economy. Setting aside environmental issues, it’s economically problematic when restrictions on development in the country’s most dynamic metro economies limit access to those economies. Building denser elsewhere doesn’t solve this problem. And it’s a serious problem: make rich areas unaffordable and inaccessible and you limit opportunity (especially for middle and low income households), increase inequality, and reduce the national economy’s capacity for growth. So there’s that.
Second, I always find it remarkable that people who live in a city that is perhaps the country’s best example of the value of density are so skeptical of the value of density. Yes, increasing the number of people who live in an area will generate some downsides. It will also generate benefits, to local residents and society as a whole. At some point the marginal downsides entirely offset the marginal benefits and it no longer makes sense to build in a given place, but there is no indication that New York is anywhere close to this level. Prices in the city are substantially above construction costs, which suggests an enormous amount of unmet demand. If builders move to meet that demand and the result is a surprisingly large increase in local disamenities, then the demand for new housing in the area will ebb and builders will quickly stop building. We’re not talking about a situation in which efforts are made to double Manhattan densities and then everyone suddenly realizes that an enormous mistake has been made. And of course, New York City’s population has been growing steadily, and we have every indication that this growth has made the city more desirable, not less.
Finally, should we encourage other areas to meet demand for higher density living? Absolutely! My point is not that everyone should move to New York. My point is that dense neighborhoods are green and their residents are causing harm by preventing developers from adding to the housing stock in those neighborhoods. In the previous post, I specifically mention Brookland in Washington, DC. I’m obviously not just focused on New York here.
Kevin’s correspondent says he doesn’t believe that people actually fight development:
I’m not sure that’s entirely true. What about all the downtown redevelopment projects that have happened around the country? Or the urban centers that sprout up around the core of big cities like NY. Next time you are in NY, look across the East River and take a gander at Long Island City. It’s as close to midtown as the Upper East Side, easy to build there, far less expensive, and just as dense. And every single one of those luxury high rises went up in the past 12 years; it’s literally a skyline that didn’t exist 12 years ago. Jersey City is a similar story, both for residential and financial (every big bank has moved their IT back office out there). Or look at the gentrification of Brooklyn!
Again, this misses the point. The question is not whether there’s been any building at all. The question is whether there has been adequate building — whether supply has risen nearly as fast as demand. And the answer is clearly no. We see this in the gap between prices and construction costs. We can see this by looking at housing permit data. In the New York area, permitting of new housing units is high by national standards but low as a share of population and existing housing stock. People see the buildings that go up; they don’t see the buildings that were blocked, or the extra floors that were omitted because of zoning rules, or the projects that were never even considered because of burdensome land-use rules. People see the rich folks moving into new condo buildings. They never see the workers seeking opportunity who never even consider moving to New York because it’s too damned expensive.
New York isn’t the only offender here, obviously. San Francisco is perhaps the best example of a desirable, economically dynamic, and remarkably green place that’s made itself inaccessible to most households by limiting new housing supply and making itself unaffordable. Boston, too. The really depressing thing is that most rich cities are also green and also really bad about permitting new construction.
Our emailer closes by saying:
So why obsess on cramming a couple hundred thousand more people on the island of Manhattan, which will push it past the bursting point? It’s just not a smart premise. In fact, I’ll go further: it bears no relationship to reality. No one would stop a luxury high rise in any of the other four boroughs or right across the river in NJ and it’s just as dense and low-carbon to live in those spots. It’s just that Ryan Avent doesn’t WANT to live in those spots. He wants to live in a cheaper high rise inÂ Manhattan (which, by the way, has seen tons of them go up already in the past decade â€” in the Financial District, Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper East Side). Avent should ride the 4/5/6 at 8 am every morning for a week, come back, and tell us if his article makes any sense. As a 4th generation NYer, I don’t think it even begins to.
I’m just pointing out the obvious here — many more people would like to live in Manhattan, it would be good economically and environmentally if they did, and it’s bad that local neighborhood groups are preventing them from doing so because they’re worried about their view. Further, my guess is that even without a relaxation in development rules Manhattan will cram in a couple hundred thousand more people, and demand will continue to rise; somehow, Manhattan will manage not to burst. Though it might eventually be swamped, if city-dwelling NIMBYs continue to make Houston exurbs ever more affordable relative to walkable density.
The transportation problem can be solved, in part, by better transportation policy. It is a crime that the subways are crammed while drivers use the streets of Manhattan for free, but that’s a policy failure, not a density failure. It’s also worth noting that heights fall off sharply as one moves away from the central business districts of Lower and Midtown Manhattan. If developers could build taller in surrounding neighborhoods and add residential capacity there, then more Manhattan workers could live within easy walking distance of their offices, and fewer would need to commute in by train.
Finally, let me point out that this is not about what I want. I’m not planning a move to New York, and I’m not remotely suggesting that the government should somehow mandate or encourage high-density construction. I’m simply saying that it should be easier for builders to meet market demand. It should be easier for builders to meet market demand in Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and Nassau County, and Washington, and downtown Denver, and so on. People clearly want to live in these places, and it would be really good for our economy and our environment if they were able to do so. And I find it very unfortunate that residents deriving great benefits from the amenities of their dense, urban neighborhoods are determined to deny those benefits to others.