More New York

Kevin Drum has an email conversation with someone who thinks I’ve got this all wrong. I think he or she has mostly missed my point. Let’s take this a bit at a time.

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 in Manhattan (which, by the way, has seen tons of them go up already in the past decade — 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.


  1. bottomofthe9th says:

    It’s a little ironic that Houston, which has traditionally been so exurban, is actually the best city for new high-density and mixed-use construction.

    Part of it, I’m sure, is that existing city residents aren’t quite as rich (or old) as those in NYC, SF, DC, etc. and so there is genuinely less opposition. But many a Houston development has drawn opposition from nearby landowners…and been built anyway. The landowners just don’t have any power here, as well it should be. And the result is that Harris County grew 20% from 2000-’09.

  2. In what world is Houston the best city for new high-density/mixed-use construction? Maybe the mixed used stuff – Houston lacks Euclidean delineation between residential, commercial, and industrial uses – but in terms of parking minimums, setback requirements, minimum lot sizes, etc., Houston is just as bad as any other Sun Belt city, no matter what the other libertarians will try to tell you.

  3. kcikstand says:

    New York City’s population has ranged between 7.4 and 8.4 million people since 1940. Relatively stable. Perhaps that suggests a natural population ceiling of some sort?

  4. Robert Boyd says:

    “In what world is Houston the best city for new high-density/mixed-use construction? Maybe the mixed used stuff – Houston lacks Euclidean delineation between residential, commercial, and industrial uses – but in terms of parking minimums, setback requirements, minimum lot sizes, etc., Houston is just as bad as any other Sun Belt city, no matter what the other libertarians will try to tell you.”

    Besides, Houston has its NIMBYs too. While poor and middle class Inner Loop neighborhoods generally lack the ability to prevent a developer from taking a single-family house, tearing it down, and putting up four to six townhomes in its place (a very common practice in Houston for the past decade), rich Inner Loop neighborhoods will use their pull with city hall to stop (or indefinitely delay) any high-rise residential or mixed-use construction.

  5. Pat says:

    I told this anecdote at Kevin Drum’s place, but it seems relevant here. HW’s notion that people in outer boroughs aren’t NIMBYs–and that it’s easy to build in them–suggests he/she has never actually crossed the East River:

    The NIMBY reflex in New York–including in Brooklyn–is really powerful. People here resist new building as their default position, even when their economic interests seem to point the other way. A non-historic garage/warehouse next to my building was razed a couple of years ago to build a new mid-rise apartment complex. Residents held a meeting with our council member to plan legal strategies to fight it. Here’s the thing: Everyone in my building rents. I get how incumbent owners would benefit from regulations that depress the housing stock. But renters? We should want more building.

    Lots of people in Brooklyn say they don’t want high rises because the great thing about the borough is that it isn’t Manhattan–it has more light and space. That’s fair, but I think that value looms too large in neighborhood housing politics. Lots of other people would value Brooklyn because of its proximity to jobs in Manhattan, and would gladly give up some light and air for a shorter commute and more time with their families. But their voices in local building disputes are muted because, as a rule, most of those people currently can’t afford to live in the neighborhood.

  6. Preston says:

    I live in San Francisco and think we should double the density here. There is clearly the market for every scrap of housing built, and the people will continue to sprawl otherwise, yet all new projects are fiercely fought. The rallying cry is not to turn SF into Manhattan. Why not? Don’t tear down the beautiful old neighborhoods to do it, but a lot of SF is not beautiful and would be stunning with Vancouver-style tall narrow buildings allowing views between the towers. Sadly NIMBY greens will never allow it.

  7. Sarah says:

    New York for real people.
    This is not sugar coated, this is real.
    How to actually survive the move to New York…

    Facts and tips that are practical and useful! Exactly what I needed!

  8. JesryPo says:

    I’m wondering why no one is mentioning the *quality* of development in New York City, only its density. What developers and their architects had been proposing to build in the last boom years were rightly fought by neighbors, not necessarily because of density concerns, but because they’re poorly designed and/or aesthetically challenged.

    Atlantic Yards is a great example. While Frank Gehry is rightly considered a great architect, he was an extremely poor choice of master planner for the site. Hs design could scarcely be LESS sensitive to the brownstone neighborhoods nearby. Instead of weaving Fort Greene and Park Slope together and ameliorating a recognized post industrial blight, he proposed a mostly impenetrable superblock of alien structures which had nothing to do with any recognizable version of Brooklyn, save a condescending name for the tallest tower.

    After over a half century of white brick bohemoths, Urban Renewal, chocolate-brown brutalism, mirrored glass disco-sliver towers, and whatever we will call what happened to Sixth Avenue in the 20’s, New Yorkers are rightly skeptical of the crap that we architects and our developer facilitators have wrought…

  9. Mixner says:

    The growth in NYC’s population since 1980 has come entirely from immigrants. Between 1970 and 2008, the foreign-born population of NYC more than doubled to 3 million, while the native-born population declined by more than 1 million.

    The population growth in NYC over the past 30 years was not the result of Americans turning against suburbia and embracing dense urbanism. It was caused by the growth in the number of immigrants admitted to the U.S. Over time, as these immigrants become richer and more assimilated, they will likely follow the same path as previous generations of immigrants, and of native-born New Yorkers. Which is to say, they will move out of NYC, to the suburbs and other parts of the country.

  10. As a planner in Connecticut I wholeheartedly agree with the part about inadequate zoning regulations. It appears that many Town in our area have been slow to adapt their Regulations to the changing times which makes for inefficient uses of buildings and lots. You can;t create Regulations, not change them for 30 years and expect you to have a vibrant, diverse and successful housing area.

  11. IMGoph says:

    Ryan would do well to take some “Geography of NYC” classes and learn why the construction of tall buildings in the city have taken place where they have. Underlying geology have as much to say about what can and can’t be built density-wise as NIMBYs, transit, and economics.

  12. IMGoph says:

    Of course, you cited a paper in an journal focusing on economics. A former classmate of mine who wrote a paper on this for a geography journal came to a different conclusion.

    My point, which I guess I made inelegantly, is that there are a lot of data points that go into what makes a city (and specifically New York) what it is. Even the paper you cited said that geology had an effect on construction, growth, and layout of the city, even it it wasn’t the only or main effect.

    So, it’s not that it’s “not true,” it’s that it’s “partly true.” This isn’t a cut-and-dried thing that can be placed into a formula to get a neat result.

  13. Alex B. says:


    Of course, height is only one part of density. There are plenty of ways you could increase density in many neighborhoods – even in already dense New York – without requiring that you hit bedrock for your structure’s foundations.

    I’m also not sure what your point is to make note of the geology. I would disagree that it has “as much say” as the other factors such as economics, era of development, transportation, local political opposition (i.e. NIMBYs) and most importantly, zoning codes and other various regulations.