Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Density Reconsidered

I’m a fan of contextually appropriate density in urban areas. If you don’t have sufficient population and income density, you can’t support urban neighborhood retail; if you can’t support neighborhood urban retail, you don’t have any real walkability; if you don’t have walkability, you are car dependent; if you are car dependent, then you are in direct competition with the suburbs; if you are in direct competition with the suburbs, you are probably going to lose. You can’t have a walkable neighborhood if there is not, in fact, anything to walk to, no matter how many sidewalks you put in.

But other benefits touted for density may not be as important in some cities. In the “spiky world” geography of globalization, high value enterprises are said to require dense networks and intense, face to face interactions. The best description of this I’ve seen is the notion that “people in global cities like to have lunch.” It’s an important part of how information and ideas spread. That’s why we increasingly see certain types of activities focused in the cores of cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston. Their high densities allow easy, frequent, face to face interactions.

This need for high density interaction environments might seem to work against lower density cities that sprawl all over the place. But does it always?

I’m not so sure. For smaller cities – say those with metro areas around two million or less – I’m not sure a lack of a huge, packed, downtown core is as critical to those types of interactions.

Density is required in places like NYC and Chicago because they are huge and because getting around is difficult. For a downtown worker to have lunch with someone in an edge city development is painful in the extreme. So co-location downtown makes sense.

But small cities, because they are much smaller and transportation is so easy, don’t need co-location to achieve the same effect. The fact that anywhere in a region is probably no more than 30 minutes from downtown, plus the fact that almost all of these cities have “favored quarter” style development, puts pretty much all of the high talent workforce within easy lunching distance of each other.

Think about Columbus, Ohio. It is fairly straightforward for someone downtown to have lunch with someone in the Polaris area – just drive up there. Anyone can have lunch with anyone in Columbus easily. Again, the city has a favored quarter development pattern, so the talent is clustered to the northside. OSU is conveniently located in the middle. The fact that Columbus is lacks the high downtown density of Chicago isn’t a problem. Having lunch – or coffee or a drink or attending an event – anywhere in Columbus is no issue.

These smaller cities tend to operate at the level Jane Jacobs called the neighborhood of the “city as a whole”. They are smaller and have shallower talent pools, meaning you need a bigger catchment area to bring folks together. Fortunately, their geography supports this. Also, the shallower talent pools in my experience leads to more cross-disciplinary interactions than you see in bigger cities, where there is much more congregating of people within their own scene.

Back to our big city examples, even within their core, getting around can be a chore. That downtown-Polaris lunch in Columbus probably didn’t take much more travel time than a Sears Tower-Hancock Building lunch in Chicago. Going from Midtown to Downtown Manhattan is even more painful. I suspect the pain of getting around Manhattan is one of the factors that drove subclustering of industries there.

So the good news in my view is that smaller cities aren’t compromised by their lack of core density on this dimension – if the region has a sufficient talent pool. The downside is that these cities as a result have weaker core business centers, because you don’t have to be downtown to be where the action is they way you do in Chicago. That’s why private sector employment in downtown Columbus (and I’d suspect almost any similar city) is declining. The forces that sustain a downtown Chicago just don’t exist there and probably never will. It’s a downtown challenge for them to be sure.

Topics: Globalization, Transportation

26 Responses to “Density Reconsidered”

  1. Jim Russell says:

    I don’t think the density dividend is about the ease of having lunch. A better proxy for understanding this geography is serendipity. An experience last summer in Youngstown might help me to explain. On a short walk from downtown up the hill to the Butler Institute of American Art and back led to many chance encounters. Each moment of serendipity was full of idea exchanges. The museum destination became secondary to the trip.

    The highlight of the afternoon was visiting the downtown studio of artist James Pernotto. We ran into James outside the Butler and he invited us to check out his workspace. While there, we talked a lot about the economic redevelopment of the Mahoning Valley. Contact information was exchanged and a strong relationship forged.

    Youngstown, like many industrial river cities, has a compact downtown that lends itself to serendipity. In fact, the Youngstown Business Incubator acts as an anchor and a catalyst for core revitalization bringing more ideas into close proximity to each other. The incubator model they use actively seeks a density dividend. That is, startups are expected to actively interact with each other. The YBI doesn’t graduate companies (thus exporting all that tacit knowledge).

    “Hey, what you are doing? That looks cool.”

  2. Yes, I think there’s something to your point, but it doesn’t capture all of it. Besides the “serendipity” angle mentioned by the previous poster, I just think there is a qualitative difference (confining the discussion to ‘lunch’ for the moment) between going to the parking lot, getting in the car, driving to lunch, etc. and just walking out the door with a colleague to stop off at a local place. I think you are quite right that traveling across the city to meet for lunch might even be easier in some of the smaller cities — it just feels less organic/natural, somehow.

  3. Ben Allen says:

    I’m not sure I understand — are you saying getting between downtown and midtown manhattan is painful? It’s a very short, very frequent, very fast train ride from almost anywhere downtown to almost anywhere midtown at any time of day. I’d much rather take that trip than literally any trip, anywhere, that requires getting in a car.

  4. Jim, it is interesting that your serendipitous experiences happened in a small, not very dense city like Youngstown. This too foots with my experience. In Indianapolis, I would have serendipitous encounters all the time. I almost never walk into Goose the Market, Starbucks on Mass Ave, Siam Square, etc. and not see someone I know. Often they are with people I don’t know. An introduction is forged.

    I have experienced very few of these serendipitous encounters in Chicago. Sure, there are lots of people I could meet, but it would be mostly anonymous encounters. It’s rare to run into people I know, outside of those in my neighborhood.

    One place I have heard that has many of these types of interactions is Silicon Valley, a suburban environment.

  5. Andrew, I would challenge you to think beyond your own preferences. I myself live in a dense urban neighborhood and prefer not to drive. It can be extremely difficult not to project our own tastes and preferences to others and universalize them as “should be’s”. Perhaps others don’t put the same value on the urban experience that we do. In an ever more diverse world, we have ever more diverse sets of preferences and tastes.

    I’m glad there are great urban environments like the one I live in. I just don’t think that other places are doomed to failure or an inferior existence just because they don’t replicate what I have.

  6. Jim Russell says:


    The density in Silicon Valley is astounding. It’s actually a strong counter-example to your lunch hypothesis. Different tech sectors cluster heavily in certain (small) pockets of the Valley. I read some research about it a few months ago.

    Perhaps density isn’t the right variable. Proximity is more important. Great proximity infrastructure in Youngstown.

  7. Ryan says:

    I grew up in Columbus, and just because one can get to Polaris in 20 minutes (on a good day), doesn’t mean that one wants to or should have to do so. I don’t think having a weak core is a good, or even acceptable quality. Additionally, some of us don’t own cars, so compromising the core and then not providing multiple transportation options to the exurbs necessitates owning a car which necessitates a huge amount of infrastructure for all those cars in the central city. Chicago has a vibrant downtown not only because of it’s population, but also because it hasn’t converted it’s entire core to parking lots.

  8. Jim, perhaps all I’m saying is that we should define things like density/proximity in terms of time, not area. Perhaps also the nature of the social networks involved.

  9. Ryan, I’m all for a strong core. Given that we agree on this, what policy would undertake to turn Columbus into the Chicago-like situation that you prefer?

  10. Jim Russell says:


    I recognize that I’m pulling the point of your post in an unintended direction. Density/critical mass is different from proximity/innovation. Rereading the comments and your post, I suspect I’m referencing knowledge spillovers and you are thinking about the value of face-to-face interaction.

    In other words, I’ve mistakenly injected proximity into the discussion about the benefits of density.

  11. Ryan says:

    For starters, Columbus has very aggressive annexation practices in suburban areas. City leaders seem to think that the suburban sprawl is inevitable, and so they should grab what they can for tax base. I think this is working against their efforts to strengthen and revitalize the CBD. Polaris is a perfect example. The city annexed that land and specified that they wanted a regional shopping center there, which turned out to be the final straw for City Center and downtown retail in general (though it was already in it’s death throes at that point because of Easton and Tuttle Crossing). The urban neighborhoods around Downtown are strong and vibrant, and I think there is a huge demand for a stronger core, but as long as they continue pushing outwards, the hole in the doughnut is going to remain.

  12. David M says:

    The irony of course is that you can’t anywhere around Polaris in under 20 minutes because the traffic is so bad. Easton is actually much more accessible in terms time to the rest of the region (save coming from the area around Tuttle).

    I agree that Cbus doesn’t need a Loop, but I think it would be better off if the region had continued to develop along it’s pre-WWII level of density.

  13. Vin says:

    Getting from Midtown to Downtown Manhattan during the middle of the day is, generally, very easy due to the presence of express trains. It may in fact be easier than getting from the Hancock Center to the Sears Tower – at any rate, it is not notably more difficult.

    That said, Aaron’s larger point rings true. I live in Brooklyn and work in Downtown Manhattan. If I had to go to a meeting in, say, Stamford, it would very likely be an all-day (at the very least all-afternoon or all-morning) affair. Anywhere much further away than Midtown would be prohibitively far for a quick meeting.

    I don’t really think either situation is better or worse, though. There can only be so many New Yorks and Chicagos. One question that does come to mind – what do you make of a region like LA, with its large population and flat, but relatively high, densities? It has a core, of sorts, but nothing at all like Manhattan or even the Loop. Food for thought.

  14. aim says:

    “City leaders seem to think that the suburban sprawl is inevitable, and so they should grab what they can for tax base.”

    In the case of Columbus, Detroit and other midwestern cities, suburban sprawl has been the inevitable trend for the past 50 years. Detroit proper didn’t expand beyond its 1920s boundaries but the suburban growth has pushed well towards Lansing, Ann Arbor and Flint. Even though Detroit and Columbus have experienced the same decline of the city center, by capturing a portion of the suburban sprawl, Columbus has been better equipped to continue to invest into the core where Detroit has been left bereft of any ability to sustain the downtown, at least from the government side of that equation. That’s not an argument for or against annexation but it’s clear that when there are no effective obstacles to sprawl development, it’s better for central cities to capture that growth.

  15. Ryan says:


    I see your point, but I don’t necessarily agree that it was entirely inevitable to the extreme degree that it occurred. Yes, sprawl would have happened in the suburban cities. In Columbus’ case however, the city actually encouraged or proposed suburban development in many areas which they designated as “growth corridors”. Because Columbus had annexed the land, the city actually held the power to develop it smarter and/or preserve it as open space, metro parks, or agricultural land – focusing development in urban areas with existing infrastructure. This is where I think the city failed and worked against it’s own interests in revitalizing downtown. Columbus was powerful enough to secure that land as their own, they should have been proactive enough not to turn it all into shopping malls and tract homes. It was, and still is, all based on the prospect of short-term financial gains. Now they might be wishing they didn’t have all those struggling malls and miles and miles of roadways to maintain…

  16. Alon Levy says:

    I don’t think you should compare Columbus to Chicago. Larger cities tend to have both denser cores and more horizontal sprawl. They also have more congested streets. All this makes travel harder, regardless of where the city fits in on the density-sprawl spectrum.

    Instead, you should compare Columbus to higher-density cities of similar size. My personal experience here is from Tel Aviv, which has 3 million people in its metro area. Much of what you say about Columbus is also true for Tel Aviv: driving anywhere from the center takes 30 minutes, tops. If you stick to the favored quarter, consisting of the city itself and its inner northern and eastern suburbs, then it’s much shorter. This coexists with high core densities, suburbs that are as dense as most prewar US city cores, and streets that aren’t very walkable but are still light years ahead of most of postwar America.

  17. Carol says:

    You misunderstand density. Barcelona is very dense city but no part of the city feels “huge and packed.” And it is not about travel time, per se. It’s about vibrancy and happy accidents — the unintended meetings that result from people being in close proximity. As someone who has lived in a sprawling city, I can tell you that people rarely talk to people outside their social group unless it is is intentional and planned.

  18. I think it may be a mistake to conflate “density” with “big downtown” as you seem on the verge of doing. There are great examples of urban agglomerations with many similar-sized centres, all dense enough to be walkable but none of them a classic American forest of highrises.

    For example, the urban heart of the Netherlands is a ring of cities called the Randstad that spread over an area not much larger than greater London, but with protected rural bands between them. They include Amsterdam, Haarlem, Leiden, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht. Nowhere there will you find anything like an American highrise downtown — or for that matter, anything like the City of London or Paris’s La Défense. Yet they are among the most livable small cities in the world. And their collective mass supports all the features of a world city, and it’s still compact enough that people in different towns can meet for lunch, usually via train rather than car.

    Kotkin likes to go on about how Americans are going to repopulate the Plains with small cities. There are actually great urbanist models that can meet him halfway on that notion, but to think about them, we have to let go of the classic unipolar downtown.

  19. Jim Russell says:

    Silicon Valley venture capital is a good way to illustrate Aaron’s point. I’m sure some of you have heard about the 20-minute rule. If the investor has to drive longer than that to get face-time, then the deal doesn’t happen. I like to think of it as the geographic limit of trust.

    Obviously, where you can drive in 20-minutes depends on the context (time and place). We could map a 20-minute business transaction cache for each city. Any firm beyond the pale is as good as a flight away and different rules apply (i.e. not agglomeration economies).

    There are a few exceptions to the 20-minute rule. From a time standpoint, a firm 10-minutes away might be on the other side of the universe. Imagine address status or being on the wrong side of the tracks. Perception creates geographic arbitrage opportunities. Not everyone jumps at the cheaper digs because of the risks associated with the move.

  20. Andrew Plumb-Larrick says:

    Hi Aaron,

    So, if I understand you right, your argument would be that density may not be so important for what you might call economic development through rubbing shoulders — that in a smaller city, or one with the easy traffic patterns that are the flip side of low density, it might not matter if commerce were concentrated in a ‘traditional’ CBD, in a couple emerging edge cities, or truly dispersed through a (small enough) region. This may be the case. But you also seem to claim (I’d agree) that city neighborhoods do need density to support neighborhood retail and walkability – that without these, they aren’t “city neighborhoods.” Instead, they are equivalent to suburbs, only (typically in the case of cities that have lost their density) equivalent to suburbs with higher taxes, crappy services, poor schools, etc.

    I’d agree completely — one question, though. What does this say about the typical focus on downtowns in regional development efforts? I’m thinking, in particular, of the “get people to live downtown” type ideas. Wouldn’t your observation lead to the idea that moderate-density city neighborhood ‘clusters’ are a much more important focus than downtowns? (Setting aside tax-base or revenue sharing issues in cases where satellite centers of commerce are outside the city limits.) For what it is worth, lots of booming cities have had downtowns devoid of residential life, that “shut down at 5 o’clock,” etc. But they have had neighborhoods.

  21. Andrew, I think you’ve got it. I am a big believer that we need to create more dense urban neighborhoods to support real walkability to bring people back to the city.

    I don’t object to downtown projects in concept. But I would put the priority on neighborhood commercial nodes or streets as the focus of mixed use that has a high residential component. These would probably start as near downtown areas like Indy’s Fountain Square.

    Part of the problem is that even in Indy/Cbus style downtowns the land is very expensive because it all owned by speculators. This makes the condo prices in these downtowns end up well above market. If I bought a downtown Indianapolis condo equivalent to my one in Chicago, it probably would cost about the same. No surprise, many of them are just pieds-a-terre for race car drivers and such.

    Also, a lot of the money that goes into downtowns are stadiums and such that do nothing to encourage sustainable neighborhood development or downtown residential. In fact, neighborhoods around most stadiums are generally pretty hostile to residential life.

    We absolutely need better density. I just think there are certain functions it plays in larger cities that it is not necessary to replicate in smaller ones.

  22. Jim Russell says:


    The urban proximity effect that Avent mentions is another example that helps us to rethink density in the way you suggest.

  23. Dave in KY says:

    There is no “critical threshold” on density. There is no point of diminishing returns for economic impact, only for sanity. Think of undergraduate colleges: why aren’t there any commuter colleges in the top 10 colleges?

    Because commuting by car makes you stupid. (Okay, not literally less intelligent, but it exposes you to fewer ideas than commuting any other way). You rarely learn while driving. You learn all the time in dense, walkable campuses.

    The core reason I moved to Louisville from the SF Bay, was that even though the infrastructure was infinitely worse in every physical metric, you can actually talk to strangers here without them assuming you’re crazy and a probable threat. Nowhere are these two features more obvious than on transit. Louisville boasts jovial, engaging riders … with absolutely terrible frequency.

  24. Alon Levy says:

    Think of undergraduate colleges: why aren’t there any commuter colleges in the top 10 colleges?

    Because universities get to the top 10 by having a lot of money in everything, which means they have money for dorms. It also means they need to engage in a lot of marketing to get their alums to donate money, which requires them to build dorms as a way of forging a campus identity. For the same reason, all colleges in the top 10 have sports teams and extensive extracurricular departments.

    However, for what it’s worth, City College, a commuter school, used to provide top-rated education. It’s still the highest value-added college in one of the rankings.

  25. Tory says:

    I completely agree. What matters is not density, but how many people you can interact with within a reasonable travel time. In cities that are hard to get around, density is critical because it takes a long time to go a short distance. In cities that are easier to get around, modest density plus speed matters more. In this post I go into more detail and compare Manhattan and Houston, which are more similar than you might imagine in terms of accessible people:

  26. Tory, thanks for sharing. I was subscribing to your blog in 2006, so missed that one. Interesting analysis.

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