Jane Jacobs Missed the Mark on Density

Jane Jacobs is probably the most well-regarded writer on urban issues in American history. But, as economist Edward L. Glaeser argues, her stance on urban density is a little bit off-target.

Glaeser writes, "I don't have anything against Greenwich Village or six-story buildings, but the perspective of the economist pushes strongly against any attempt to postulate or, far worse, regulate a single perfect density.

Indeed, to anyone who respects consumer sovereignty, there is something a little jarring about Jacobs's question: 'What is the proper density for city dwellings?'

Why in the world should there be a 'proper density'? A good case can be made that cities succeed by offering a diverse menu of neighborhoods that cater to a wide range of tastes. Some people love Greenwich Village, and that's great, but I was perfectly happy growing up in a 25-story tower, and I don't see anything wrong with that, either."

Keeping density low causes a reduced supply, and that will basically drive prices up and limit those low-density areas to only the most affluent or prosperous people, according to Glaeser. He says cities need a variety of densities, including high densities.

Full Story: Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes

Comments

Comments

Narrow-Minded Economist

"Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes"
"Restricting new construction and keeping buildings artificially low means that housing supply cannot satisfy demand. The result is high prices and cities that are increasingly affordable only to the prosperous."

I have often argued for smart growth myself because restricting density drives up prices. But Glaeser seems to think that there are no issues involved in urban design beyond the law of supply and demand. Here are some obvious flaws in his article:

-- He says that Jane Jacobs liked neighborhoods of six-story buildings. This is untrue: she liked neighborhoods with a diversity of building types, including high-rises.

-- American cities can increase their supply of housing dramatically by building the diverse neighborhoods that Jacobs preferred or the European scale neighborhoods that I prefer with a maximum height of 6 stories. Eg, Berkeley, CA, where I live, has a density of 7 dwelling units per acre, and it is higher density than most American cities. By building neighborhoods of 100 to 150 units per acre, we could increase housing supply dramatically and drive prices down.

-- Glaeser ignores construction costs. It costs least to construct apartment buildings of 5 stories or less, which can be wood-framed. Greater heights require concrete or steel skeletons, which are more expensive. If we want to lower the cost of housing, we should focus on 5 story buildings. (An occasional high-rise can drive down housing prices by increasing supply and reducing upward pressure on the price of housing in general, but the lowest cost new housing will be in 5 story buildings.)

-- Glaeser ignores the public realm. As an economist, he thinks only about the cost of housing to the consumer, not about building attractive neighborhoods. Jacobs focused on the public realm, on how the city's streets and sidewalks work to create public life, and Glaeser misses her point entirely.

Glaeser reveals his narrow-minded economist's point of view when he writes:
"to anyone who respects consumer sovereignty, there is something a little jarring about Jacobs’s question: What is the proper density for city dwellings?”
He doesn't realize that consumers choose what to consume based on the private benefits to themselves, and they ignore the public realm.

I respond:
"to anyone who respects democracy, there something very jarring about Glaeser's claim that the market is sovereign and people should not be able to make political decisions about the sorts of neighborhoods and cities they live in."

Charles Siegel

Political Decisions

Consumers most assuredly care about the public realm. That's why home prices are higher in better school districts, higher in "beautiful" neighborhoods, higher for "beautiful" homes, higher for neighborhoods with lots of amenities/life/services, higher in economically vibrant areas, etc, etc, etc. From my take on Jacobs, the public realm according to her was the mutually beneficial interactions between individuals that, together, create the "niegborhood" and the "public realm". I think (and could be wrong) that you are equating politics/government with the public realm (or at least substituting them for one another), which is wrong because they are definitely not the same thing. Political decisions, by their very nature, are decisions whereby one group profits at the expense of another without the other groups consent. I know you and I have a very different take on what government is and isn't, so suffice to say that I would take markets/prices (which are the opinions of millions of individuals) over the decision of a politician elected by 2% of the population or a buearacrat in it for a paycheck or because of a god-complex anyday.

The lack of density in America is a political decision, not a consumer decision (zoning could only be considered the free market if you consider crony capitalism the free market), and the lack of beautifiul urban design is a direct result of the lack of density and choice. I can't be any cooincidence that all of the neighborhoods that both you and I hold up as the paradigm of what urban neighborhoods should be were all built prior to zoning and urban design guildelines? So, as someone who respects the decisions of individuals to do what they want to do as long as they don't harm others, I think asking the question of what is the proper density for city dwellings is a bit Big Bortherish because the proper density varies by individual and will sort itself out based on the sum of those individuals thoughts/decisions (it somehow managed to do this before zoning/central land use planning...).

Consumers clearly value the public realm and good urban design, I say we get the politics out of the way and see what happens (of course those who depend on the political decsions for their livelihood will fight it all the way.... planners, politicians, RE speculators, NIMBYs).

Low density and rational utility maximization.

The lack of density in America is a political decision, not a consumer decision (zoning could only be considered the free market if you consider crony capitalism the free market), and the lack of beautifiul urban design is a direct result of the lack of density and choice.

I disagree.

Glaeser is fond of stating that rational utility maximizing agents are to blame for low-density housing in many parts of the country, as they move in then agitate for low-density housing to maintain their property values and keep out undesirables. So the "consumers" ask the pols to make the lack of density...decision

Best,

D

Political Decisions

Consumers using politics to keep their property values up via low-density zoning is the perfect example of what I would call a "political decision". One group of homeowners is using the government to benefit themselves at everybody else's expense by making everything but single-family homes on acre lots (or whatever metric it happens to be) illegal. I guess we can call it collusion, or mercantilism, or crony capitalism, but it is all the same in that one group uses the power of the government to enrich itself. In no way is this good for society (unless we define society to only include those homeowners). This would be impossible without the arbitrary politically based land use controls we call zoning (well, near impossible, as these homeowners could buy up all the land around them and refuse to develop it, but then it would actually cost them something). It's the same old song and dance from our dear leaders... "we need zoning so nobody can build a toxic waste dump next to your house, but we're going to use it to exclude undersireables and to make our campaign contributors, along with oursleves, rich." I call it a "political decision".

Political and human decisioning.

Nonetheless, the (pejorative) "consumer" is not a monolithic lot and ~1/3 do indeed make decisions to favor low density over high density. The latest JAPA has a paper about this, extending other work that shows the same. Consumers ask pols for low density. Developers and others ask them for high density.

Were we to eliminate Euclidean zoning, there would be more choices but normal human nature would ask pols for one or the other there too.

Best,

D

Rent Seeking

Apologies for the delayed response on this, but rent-seeking was the correct term I was searching for above. And rent-seeking is normal human nature, especially the more politcally controlled the system (and land-use, being centrally planned, is about as politcally controlled as you get) because it's the easiest way to profit.

I'm glad you've come around on the idea that eliminating zoning would create more choices (it undoubtedly would), but I also think there would be a positively reinforcing cycle as the profit and loss system inherent in real estate investments would have less to do with the politcally decided allowable land use and more to do with demand, which would reduce rent-seeking behaviour all around (not that it would go away entirely... it never does).

The absence of zoning has been done before (and it created all of the urban neighborhoods everyone loves so much today), and has one little holdout now (Houston, which sprawls the same as everywhere else, but at least is cheaper).

Rent-seeking demographic

I'm glad you've come around on the idea that eliminating zoning would create more choices (it undoubtedly would)

Would that you had been around a decade or so ago when I was saying this, and the majority of faces on the receiving end would turn red. I would have appreciated the support back then.

Nonetheless, Houston has de facto zoning emplaced today, with all kinds of language that limits lot size and makes parking requirements and all that. Well-documented.

An aside, an interesting older paper that highlights the difficulty in neoclassical econ and land preservation that dovetails nicely into your argumentation on this thread.

Best,

D

Too Young

I was too young at the time to help, but would gladly support you now on that argument. Correct on Houston, but they are as close as anything comes now in the US (unless there is a small town I don't know of). Also, thank you for the paper, I look forward to reading it.

Consumers And The Public Realm

"I think asking the question of what is the proper density for city dwellings is a bit Big Bortherish because the proper density varies by individual and will sort itself out based on the sum of those individuals thoughts/decisions (it somehow managed to do this before zoning/central land use planning...)."

When Donald Trump built Trump Soho and when consumers bought the condos in it, were they thinking about the effect the building had on the character of the neighborhood?

90% of the people who live in Soho might disagree with Donald Trump's view of the ideal density. In an uncontrolled market, 1% of the people can destroy the neighborhood character that the other 99% want.

It doesn't follow that there is one proper density for everyone. Of course, different people want to live in different types of neighborhoods and will make different political decisions about neighborhood character.

Of course, these decisions sorted themselves out in the days before zoning largely because technology limited what people could build. They built beautiful neighborhoods in the eighteenth and nineteenth century without zoning, because they could not build higher than six stories.

No Trump towers back then. But there were many cases back then when tenements were built from property line to property line, blighting the buildings next to them.

"Consumers most assuredly care about the public realm."

Come on, Ricardo. This is basic theory of externalities. If there are no anti-pollution laws, consumers will buy products made by factories that dump their toxic wastes in the river, because the products made in factories that dispose of their wastes safely are more expensive.

The theory of externalities also applies to consumers who shop at Wal-Mart or who buy apartments in Trump Soho. They are maximizing benefit for themselves and ignoring the side effects on the character of the region or neighborhood.

Note that I am not defending a NIMBY or suburbanite point of view. I have spent lots of time fighting against NIMBYs, and I said at the beginning of the thread: "By building neighborhoods of 100 to 150 units per acre, we could increase housing supply dramatically and drive prices down."

But it is utterly irrational to say that there should be no political controls at all on private decisions about development. And it is irrational to be completely cynical about our ability to make good political decisions but not to question whether Donald Trump will always make good decisions.

Charles Siegel

The Public Realm

Sory for the delayed response to this, but you do realize that by saying that neighbors should have politcal control over a development nearby that you are endorsing the NIMBY point of view (as that is all they are doing)? You are simply substituting your vision of what the nieghborhood should be for their vision of what the neighborhood should be. Nobody knows what every single person in SoHo thinks the ideal density of SoHo should be, and your thoughts about what ruins neighborhood character are likely not shared by the residents of Trump SoHo. It is simply your opinion (not that it's a bad one actually). You banding together with like-minded souls to stop something like Trump SoHo is the same as suburban NIMBYs stopping an apartment complex (do the residents of the apartment complex know they are ruining the character of the neighborhood?). Once land use decisions become political, then tyranny of the majority/minority is much easier as politicans and beauracrats can be bought (via outright bribery or electoral bribery). I doubt that without this fact something like Trump SoHo could even be built.

Granted technology was limited prior to the advent of zoning, but things worked themselves out because the vast majority of people cooperate effectively and because buildings had to respond to market demand. Trump SoHo could not be built simply because someone could build a giant highrise right next door (thereby eliminating the view and a lot of the exclusivity associated with the property). Tenements are 6 dozen to one half-dozen to the other in my mind. Building property to property line can't really be the source of blight, I think the problem associated with tenements had more to do with packing people in and the general unsafe and unsanitary conditons of the property. Now, poor folks still pack themselves to the gills due to cost today, but building codes are much better today at dealing with unsafe properties (note I am definitely not against building codes... building properties the correct way is a whole lot different than land use controls). Also, courts can enforce nuisance laws for those instances where neighboring property owners are actually harmed. True externalities can be handled via laws and litigation (as there's a vast difference between harmful pollution and an opinion of neighborhood character).

Democracy, Technology, And The Public Realm

Granted technology was limited prior to the advent of zoning, but things worked themselves out because the vast majority of people cooperate effectively and because buildings had to respond to market demand.

You have said many times that the market without zoning produced the old neighborhoods that we love today. That seems to imply that we would get equally good results today without any controls on development.

But because we have different technologies, the market today would give us strip malls and sprawl more often than it would give us places like the old neighborhoods we love.

Incidentally, this is a major theme of my book Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices (see the ad in the upper right of the planetizen web page) which talks about how to limit technology to create places like those old lovable neighborhoods.

I am puzzled by your claim that "the vast majority of people cooperate effectively." We don't need laws because people automatically cooperate????? Why don't people cooperate to reduce traffic jams by driving less?

"Nobody knows what every single person in SoHo thinks the ideal density of SoHo should be."

In a democracy, the majority should be able to make decisions about the public realm. Are you saying that there should be no action unless every single person agrees?

I don't know if the majority agrees with me. But there is a deeper disagreement between 1) those who say that there should be democratic decisions about what a neighborhood is like and 2) those who say the market should determine what a neighborhood is like.

If the market determines what a neighborhood is like, then 10% of the people in the neighborhood who want to live in highrises can override the wishes of 90% who want to live in a traditional scale neighborhood.

"you are endorsing the NIMBY point of view"

I have long been a scourge of local NIMBYs in Berkeley. When I say we should choose democratically to live in traditional European neighborhoods with a six-story height limit, I am not endorsing the point of view of those who say we should choose to live in auto-dependent sprawl suburbs with quarter-acre lots and a one-story height limit.

In fact, the market will produce both ugly highrises in cities and ugly sprawl in the countryside. I support laws protecting the character of cities and laws protecting the countryside from sprawl. If you are against both of those types of laws, you are the one enabling the future NIMBYs who will move into that sprawl.

"True externalities can be handled via laws and litigation (as there's a vast difference between harmful pollution and an opinion of neighborhood character)."

You are just trying to narrow the definition of externalities. There is no justification in economic theory for saying that harmful pollution is a true externality but esthetic issues are not.

If you define externalities narrowly and say we can should only control externalities that are health hazards and not externalities that are esthetic blights, it is obvious what the result will be: the world will not keep getting less healthy, but it will keep getting uglier.

In addition, sprawl does create harmful pollution - eg, high ghg emissions - and the market approach would generate more sprawl.

Charles Siegel

Public and Private

We have a different definition of the public realm. Yes, the majority should be able to make decisions on what goes on in the public realm, but I do not view private property as the public realm. Does that mean anything goes, certainly not, as doing something that truly harms you neighbors (i.e. a nuisance, loud noises, spewing pollution...) should be punishable by law (which is what I view laws as being for... punishing those that harm others... not for anarchy at all). However, when you endorse the ability to democratically (i.e. politically) choosing/forcing evertone to live in traditional European nieghborhoods you are similiarly endorsing the ability of those wishing to democratically choose/force everyone to live in auto-dependent suburbs by them outvoting you. It is the flipside of the same coin, both are opinions being politically imposed on all by a majority (or, most-likely by a minority for both cases). Building a 5 story building amidst single-family homes does not harm anyone, building a 10 story building amid rowhouses does not harm anyone... perhaps it hurts property values, perhaps it changes the character of the neighborhood, perhaps it is ugly... all subjective harms in my book (it spews toxic waste that hurts you... nuisance punishable in the courts). Also, will some properties produced by some folks be ugly... heck yes, will most likely be mediorce and an some extremely beautiful, heck yes (beauty being in the eye of the beholder of course).

Now, here is where I agree with you. If we let loose all development regulations today, would we sprawl more and would many of the buildings be autocentric... yes. However, this really has more to do with our current subsidisation of the automobile and single-family homes. These politcal decisions would also (and should be I might add) have to be undone (simply making people pay the full cost for roads would go a long way) as would the current political/union monopoly on our cities public transit systems.

Democracy And Faith-Based Economics

"when you endorse the ability to democratically (i.e. politically) choosing/forcing evertone to live in traditional European nieghborhoods you are similiarly endorsing the ability of those wishing to democratically choose/force everyone to live in auto-dependent suburbs by them outvoting you."

I am not saying that everyone should be forced to live in the same sort of neighborhood. No one in their right mind says that.

I am saying that each neighborhood or city should be able to decide on its own character. Donald Trump and his small group of customers should not be able to override the desires of 90% of the people in Soho.

Many neighborhoods and small cities yield many choices of different ways to live. The market reduces choice it builds highrises in every neighborhood and leaves us without the choice of traditional urban design.

perhaps it hurts property values, perhaps it changes the character of the neighborhood, perhaps it is ugly... all subjective harms in my book

If people pay more to live in an attractive neighborhood, that means beauty has economic value. If development is so ugly that it reduces property values, that means it is creating an external cost.

You have reached a reductio ad absurdum of your own argument by saying that lower property values are subjective harms. You might as well say that, if I take money out of your pocket, that is just a subjective harm to you.

If we let loose all development regulations today, would we sprawl more and would many of the buildings be autocentric... yes. However, this really has more to do with our current subsidisation of the automobile and single-family homes.

This is faith-based economics. You begin with the quasi-religious premise that the market leads to the optimum outcome, and so you conclude that government intervention is the only problem.

Government subsidies to the automobile have done great harm, but basic theory of externalities shows that removing those subsidies is not enough in itself.

Automobiles create greater external costs than other forms of transportation. Therefore, people will choose more than the optimum amount of automobile transportation in a free market with no direct subsidies to any form of transportation, because people choose their form of transportation based on the benefits and costs to themselves and tend to ignore external costs.

Same is true of sprawl. People choose to live in low-density suburbs based on the benefits and costs to themselves, and they tend to ignore external costs. Low density suburbs have far greater external costs than higher density neighborhoods. Therefore, the free market will produce lower than optimum density.

Economic theory oversimplifies the world, but this simplification does let us understand some things with near-geometric certainty. One thing we can be certain about is that a free market will produce more automobile use and lower density than the economic optimum (with the economic optimum defined as the choices people would make if they took into account ALL the benefits and ALL the costs of their decisions).

It always amazes me that faith-based free-market advocates can ignore the obvious implications of market theory.

Charles Siegel

Market Reduces Choice

"Many neighborhoods and small cities yield many choices of different ways to live. The market reduces choice it builds highrises in every neighborhood and leaves us without the choice of traditional urban design."

If I may give an example from my own city, there is currently a political debate about whether to build high-rises in downtown Berkeley - with some supporting highrises of 16 to 20 stories and some saying that Berkeley should preserve its mid-rise character by keeping a height limit of 9 stories (with possible exceptions of up to 12 stories in some cases.)

According to faith-based free market theory, Donald Trump should be allowed to move in and build a half-dozen of his trademark 40 to 60 story glass boxes, with no political control over what he does - changing Berkeley's character completely and destroying its skyline, which now focuses on the Campanile.

This would clearly reduce choice by leaving the SF Bay Area with no genuinely urban mid-rise downtown. Downtown Berkeley would look like downtown San Francisco and Oakland.

(Of course, this doesn't just apply to Berkeley. Most major cities in Europe have a skyline dominated by highrises. Without political control, every city in Europe will have the same skyline - just as almost every city in America now does.)

This example shows what a fringe opinion it is to say that there should be no height limits, so the Donald and his like can make the decisions that determine the character of our cities and neighborhoods. There are good arguments for and against building highrises, but I don't think there is any good argument for letting Donald Trump make the decision unilaterally.

Charles Siegel

High rises

Doesn't someone have to be the first to build a high rise? In a city like Chicago or NYC or SF when at one point there were no buildings above a certain height, doesn't some developer have to be first to build a high rise. It may seem to destroy the character of the city at that point in time, but didn't it just evolve the neighborhood/central city over time to a dense, high rise environment?

In your thinking, how does a city densify past a certain point? I do believe that this is NIMBY-like thinking, just on a different level. They have single-family homes and they think a 2 story multifamily complex "ruins" the character of the neghborhood. You have mid rise buildings and you think high rises "ruin" the neighborhood. At the risk of being oversimplistic, what's the difference? After all, what developer would build a 50 story tower if they didn't thnk they could lease/sell it? If they could, wouldn't that imply that the demand (market) for that area is for higher buildings? But somebody has to be first, right?

What's The Difference

The difference is that the NIMBYs want auto-dependent cities and don't care about the environment, and I want walkable cities because I care about the environment.

"After all, what developer would build a 50 story tower if they didn't thnk they could lease/sell it? If they could, wouldn't that imply that the demand (market) for that area is for higher buildings?

As I said earlier:
If the market determines what a neighborhood is like, then 10% of the people in the neighborhood who want to live in highrises can override the wishes of 90% who want to live in a traditional scale neighborhood.

How can you miss this obvious point? The market gives consumers what they want, but it doesn't always give the majority what it wants.

Charles Siegel

90% of those who already live there

what about the 250,000 people who want to live there, but can't. I don't think it's an obvious point in that you are relying fully on the random opinions (of those who have the time to care) of existing residents, but by doing so, you are neglecting the opinions of people who want to live there and are actually willing to pay to do so. You may not think so, but that really is precisely the same line of thinking as NIMBYism. It's all about what the current residents' think it should be. It seems like they should have to pool together money in a landpool and buy a deed restriction. Remember, the future condo buyer or the future office tenant or the future downtown retailer may not currently be in the area, so I guess they are not a member of the community and don't count? The market is what makes them count. Otherwise, I'll just rally 13 people on my way to the council meeting and tell them what the community wants/doesn't want and tell them "hey, I care about the environment, these other clowns who have no say don't care, so listen to me." It's the drawbridge example, just on a different scale. I do think you are well intentioned for whatever that is worth, but I have to disagree with you on this. There is probably a better solution than a height restriction or a simple "no". Otherwise, you might have 300 new single family homes and people screaming "we had no choices, but sprawl."

Glaeser should know better

Glaeser should know better as some of his own research shows that high-rises deplete social capital and that residents of high-rises are less likely to be involved in their community. Furthermore, high-rises destroy community character, something that Jane Jacobs was very keen to preserve.

Excellent article.

In Baltimore, crime decreases with building height and population density. It drives me crazy that zoning and public opinion still encourage rowhouse developments when that typology has failed the city. The vast majority of the housing stock that no one wants are rowhomes, while housing prices and rents have skyrocketed in neighborhoods with a diversity of housing stock. Height restrictions will eventually price all of the people who now don't drive into pseudo-suburbs on the fringes of the city/county line.

Excellent article.

In Baltimore, crime decreases with building height and population density. It drives me crazy that zoning and public opinion still encourage rowhouse developments when that typology has failed the city. The vast majority of the housing stock that no one wants are rowhomes, while housing prices and rents have skyrocketed in neighborhoods with a diversity of housing stock. Height restrictions will eventually price all of the people who now don't drive into pseudo-suburbs on the fringes of the city/county line.

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

Why is Baltimore different?

The Baltimore writer raises an interesting point: rowhouses aren't as marketable as high-rises in some places. But in others, rowhouses do well. What's going on?

Maybe it has something to do with crime. In high-crime Baltimore (as in NYC a few decades ago) maybe people who wish to live in the city are more likely to prefer high-rises to protect them against same. In low-crime NYC, there is still a market for high-rises, but perhaps the demand is less overwhelming because people feel safer living in walk-ups than they would in Baltimore.

Interesting discussion

in the article and comments. I kind of agree with Glaeser and I don't think he's being narrow-minded to the extent that he is an economist and will see the world through that lense. Working past all the political paradigm debate (because people will just disagree), it seems this all can be boiled down to this question: is an attractive city with "good" and "vibrant" street life a positive externality? It seems to me that while it is a nice thing to have, just having a "nice' city, (the way urban designers define it) is not exactly a positive externality, in the true sense of the term. It is nonexclusionary in its benefits, but not everyone would agree it's a true benefit. Also, I would argue that there could be some rivalry in consumption since if varying levels of people (more) could reduce the benefit for others. It's borderline, in my opinion.

In terms of housing prices, costs of contruction do go up, but per buildable unit land costs go down as you increase density. So, in the developers' pro forma, if you push past 3 stories and have to go with a steel frame, you might as well go to 60 if there is a market for it.

I don't understand the density target thing either. Downtown Chicago seems to work - I like it there. I know lots of people who love living there. Manhattan seems to work. A range of densities and styles seem to offer lots of consumer choice and doesn't society reap the benefits of very high density in some places because they aren't living on 1/4 acre lots?

Height And Price

You can get up to 5 stories, with the first story concrete and four stories wood-framed above. That is the most common building type in Berkeley today, and it is used for moderate-cost rental housing aimed at students.

I would like to see numbers about the cost of construction vs. the cost of land for steel-skeleton buildings.

My experience with privately built housing being constructed in America today is that the steel-skeleton highrises are luxury condos selling at over $1 million per unit. Any housing affordable to the middle class is 5 stories or less. The highrises are built in neighborhoods where land is so expensive that it is impossible to build middle-income housing, such as downtown San Francisco. The middle-class housing is built in neighborhoods where land is less expensive and it is not necessary to go highrise to deal with the land cost.

Charles Siegel

Glaeser Distorts the Facts About Jane Jacobs

Glaeser writes: "Her [Jacobs'] preferred density level seems to have been about 150 housing units per net acre, which means six-story buildings if units average 1,600 square feet. Six stories also seems to be the maximum height that people are willing to walk up regularly, which may explain why it is the norm in many older pre-elevator areas. Now I don’t have anything against Greenwich Village or six-story buildings, but the perspective of the economist pushes strongly against any attempt to postulate or, far worse, regulate a single perfect density."

This is a blatant misrepresentation of Jane Jacobs, who said very clearly that she prefers the neighborhoods with the maximum density that is possible without eliminating diversity of building types. She preferred neighborhoods with buildings that are a mix of different building ages and types, including high-rise elevator buildings. She liked Greenwich Village because it had a mix of new high-rise buildings with its older buildings, not because it had no buildings over 6 stories.

She objected to high densities only when they were so high that they required standardization. In other words, she did not object to high-rises, but she did object to neighborhoods that were made up exclusively of high-rises.

Here are some quotations from Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities (with page numbers referring to the Vintage edition paperback of 1963):

"How high 'should' city dwelling densities go? ... Obviously, if the object is vital city life, the dwelling densities should go as high as they need to go to stimulate the maximum potential diversity of of a district. ... densities can get too high if they reach a point at which, for any reason, they begin to repress diversity instead of to stimulate it. ... The reason building dwelling densities can begin repressing diversity is this: At some point, to accommodate so many dwellings on the land, standardization of the buildings must set in." p. 212 [Note that she puts "should" in quotation marks.]

"At any particular place and time...some particular way of packing dwellings onto the land is apt to be the most efficient way. At some places and times, for example, narrow three-story row houses were apparently the answer for maximum efficiency at geting city dwellings onto the land. Where these crowded out all other dwelling types, they created a pall of monotony." p. 213

"Elevator apartments are today the most efficient way of packing dwellings on a given amount of building land. And within this type are certain most efficient subtypes, such as those of maximum height economic height for low-speed elevators, usually considered today as twelve stories, and those of maximum height for pouring reinforced concrete (... twenty-two stories). p.213

"Elevator apartments do not produce standardization by virtue of being elevator apartments, any more than three-story houses produce standardization by virtue of being three-story houses. But elevator buildings produce standardization when they are almost the only way a neighborhood is housed - just as three-story houses produce standardization when they are almost the only way a neigbhorhood is housed." p. 214

"Popular high-density city areas have considerable variation among their buildings.... Greenwich Village is such a place. it manages to house people at densities ranging from 125 to above 200 dwelling units per acre, without standardization of buildings. These averages are obtained from mixtures of everything from single-family houses .... on up to elevator buildings of many different ages and sizes." p. 214.

"just how high can a neighborhood's densities go without sacrificing the neighborhood to standardization?" p. 216

"I doubt that it is possible, without drastic standardization, to go higher than the North End's density of 275 dwelling units per net acre. For most districts - lacking the North End's particular and long heritage of different building types - the ultimate danger mark imposing standardization must be considerably lower; I should guess, roughly, that it is apt to hover at about 200 dwelling units to the acre." p. 217 [Note that this maximum is not the density of 150 units per acre that Glaeser says she prefers because it is common in older neighborhoods without elevator buildings; it is the density of older neighborhoods like this that have a mix of high-rise elevator buildings added to the older buildings.]

Now, I myself disagree with Jane Jacobs on this point. I accept the New Urbanists' idea that neighborhoods are most attractive if they have a consistent urban fabric, with fabric buildings made up of a few building types and with important public buildings standing out from the fabric. I think Jacobs went too far in demanding diversity because she was over-reacting to the monotony of modernist housing projects. Her theory would exclude some very attractive and successful neighborhoods, such as Brooklyn's Park Slope and most traditional neighborhoods of European cities.

But whether you agree or disagree, you should begin by getting the facts right about the writer you are discussing, and Glaeser clearly does not get the facts right.

The quotations above shows that Glaeser is totally wrong to say that Jacobs prefers neighborhoods made up of six-story buildings.

To repeat the quote from Glaeser: ""Her [Jacobs'] preferred density level seems to have been about 150 housing units per net acre, which means six-story buildings if units average 1,600 square feet." How can anyone possibly believe that Jacobs preferred neighborhoods that reach that density level by repeating one building type?

Charles Siegel

Prepare for the AICP Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $199
Planetizen Courses image ad

Planetizen Courses

Advance your career with subscription-based online courses tailored to the urban planning professional.
Starting at $14.95 a month

Stay thirsty, urbanists

These sturdy water bottles are eco-friendly and perfect for urbanists on the go.
$19.00
Red necktie with map of Boston

Tie one on to celebrate your city

Choose from over 20 styles of neckties imprinted with detailed city or transit maps.
$44.95