Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thought Provoking Density and Dallas' Schizophrenia

This blog has certainly spent its fair share of time discussing density, however it has never had the primacy for me that it does with other planning-type blogs. I've always felt it to be a bit of a fools gold and that design of cities is more important. While density of interactions, aka propinquity or proximity of all things needed for the daily exchange routine that occurs, is important for the efficiency of cities, in my opinion density can either be good or bad. If density is merely a way to warehouse people with little other concern, particularly to how the building relates to the rest of the city then it is deleterious to the city fabric. At its best, it should be merely a response to desirability. Demand-based rather than supply-based.

I thought this article at The Midwesterner was particularly thought-provoking for how it may relate to Dallas-Fort Worth and its identity. The basis of the article is the basic question of whether density was a good thing. The final thesis arrived at was that for global cities, those that compete as world class exporting centers of cultural foment, density is absolutely critical. This makes sense in the Creative Cities, Density of the Educated discussion. Smart people interacting in a participatory manner with each other energizes the creative process.

However, the flip side is that more regionally based cities are precisely that way because the lack of density is desirable for those that live there. The Urbanophile misguidedly alleges this is due to the nature of being able to drive anywhere in the the particular town in fifteen minutes. So those in cities of lower wages should be more dependent on potentially volatile gas prices and spend a greater percentage of their income, ie greater tax burden on making their daily connections?

In my estimation, this probably has more to do with Zipf's Law and a more natural cultural and personal predilection to various population densities (and the local and cultural amenities inherent) than anything as mundane or prosaic as "they like driving and the ease at which they do so." As the Midwesterner and Bruce Katz point out, they probably just haven't yet realized the price of expanding outward faster than population growth can support (particularly in rust belt cities).

As far as Dallas is concerned this raises a question that I can't answer. Dallas likes to see itself as a global city errr "world class," perhaps masking its own insecurities with false bravado. But, there also seems to be a perception (and one that I enjoy as well), of Dallas being a collection of smaller towns, loosely interconnected. Of course, the less dense, loosely connected does not a global or world class city make, but it is very much the perfect embodiment of the modern polycentric of satellite city form.

Are the two even as mutually exclusive as they seem?

My guess is that indeed density is necessary for the cauldron of creativity bubbling over in World Class Cities (and the draw that creates in importing talented people), but not necessary at all for livable places.

So which is it Dallas, which do you want to be? A global player or a looked down upon wild west podunk town on steroids? Do we want to compete with OKC and Austin (which are rapidly urbanizing themselves, catching up?) or NYC, London, Vancouver, Paris, Hong Kong, et al?

Of course, if we focus strictly on livability, we could be competing with Zurich and Copenhagen, which wouldn't be a bad thing at all.