On Urban Density: We're Not All Goldilocks, We Don't All Want the Same Porridge

Photo adapted from "Urban Canyon" by Diego Torres Silvestre.

Goldilocks is the story of a selfish young girl who breaks into another family's home, eats their food, and destroys their property. She has a very self-centered perception of what's "just right," and she's perfectly willing to trample on the rights of others in her quest to acquire it. It's fitting, then, that some authors have made reference to Goldilocks when writing about how cities "should" be built. But in their view it's not the little girl who's the monster, it's the Three Bears and their divergent, inharmonious tastes. There's a proper urban density just as surely as there's a proper porridge temperature, and if you don't like it, well, you can go live with the bears.

Here's one take, from the Guardian's recent piece, "Cities need Goldilocks housing density – not too high or low, but just right":

There is no question that high urban densities are important, but the question is how high, and in what form. There is what I have called the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

Other authors have written similarly prescriptive articles, with titles like "Mid-Rise: Density at a Human Scale," which makes the case that density is important, but that too much density can be harmful. Or "Why I Miss the Suburbs," which consists of a woman who lives in New York City complaining about all the things she misses about the suburbs. Or here's a local Seattle man offering his feelings on micro-housing: "I don't think most people want to live next to a boarding house with itinerant people living in it."

Putting aside the loaded language of that last quote, what each of these share is the belief that there's a "right" way to build cities. In their view there's a balanced amount of development—somewhere between two-story dingbats and 80-story skyscrapers—that will make everyone happy. This mindset is no less destructive than Goldilocks herself, but on a scale far beyond at of a single household's personal property.

Most people probably don't want to live in a city full of skyscrapers, but some surely do. Manhattan is a real place, after all. Not everyone wants to live in a sprawling, suburban neighborhood either. Some people enjoy the anonymity of the big city, others hate it. To state the very obvious, different people are different. They like different foods and different cars, or they don't like cars at all; they have different political ideologies and appreciate different art; and they enjoy different urban environments to different degrees.

No one is forcing these people to be here! Photo by Bon Adrien.

Imposing my values to ensure that only a specific type of urban environment exists robs others of the opportunity to find their own Happy City. Unlike Goldilocks, who breaks some dishware and a chair or two, successful NIMBYs are taking away entire homes from people who would like to live in their city—they remove those potential homes from the market, and they drive up the cost of living for everyone else in the process. There's something to be said for incrementalism, but arbitrary limits to density, excessive parking minimums, and other rigid regulations that define which forms are acceptable (and, more to the point, which are not) cost us dearly: lost productivity, overpriced housing, air pollution, sprawl, poor health and obesity; the list goes on and on.

In cities—places known for accepting and celebrating diversity—it's amazing that we have to fight over what kinds of housing are appropriate and not. If it's safe and clean, and someone wants to live in it, that should resolve 90 percent of the issue. They should have the right to live as they please. Community input should play a role, including on aesthetic matters, but arguments that "I wouldn't want to live there" have no place in the discussion, especially when those homes are maintaining vacancy rates of approximately zero. If no one wants to live there, no one will, and you'll be unlikely to see that type of housing again any time soon.