The joys of medium density

Michael Lewyn's picture

It is a chestnut of urban planning that a neighborhood must have a certain number of dwelling units per acre (usually around 8 or 10) in order to have adequate bus service. But the quarter-acre lot seems to get no respect: too dense for estate-home luxury, not dense enough to constitute "smart growth". But a 9 year-old girl recently taught me that, at least for children of a certain age, these medium-density neighborhoods have their advantages.

The girl belongs to a family I know that has embraced some of the strictures of traditional Judaism, including the prohibition against using most forms of technology (video games, computers, cars) on the Sabbath. This seems to work well for the older children (who spend most of the day sleeping). It also works well for their 6 year old daughter, who has little desire to leave the house for any reason as long as she has someone to play with. But the 9 year old daughter recently mentioned to me that she is (to put it euphemistically) not in love with Sabbath observance; I gather that she is bored because of the absence of video games.

I thought about this and asked myself: hey, wait a minute! Why doesn't she run over to a friend's house, as do children in my city's most Jewishly observant neighborhood? Perhaps density has something to do with it.

This family's neighborhood is mostly comprised of pretty large houses- lots of half-acre and one-acre lots, the odd gated community. Since there are lots of sidewalks, the neighborhood density is high enough for people to walk to synagogue and to walk to each other's houses on special occasions- but not high enough, I suspect, for 9-year olds to casually visit each other.

By contrast, most homeowners in my neighborhood in Jacksonville (as in Atlanta's biggest Orthodox Jewish neighborhood) live on quarter-acre lots. From the standpoint of an adult trying to use public transit, this area is still car-dependent sprawl. But from the standpoint of a preteen child who just wants to visit a friend in the neighborhood, the residential parts of the neighborhood are navigable on foot; my co-congregants' children visit each other's houses more routinely, and are thus presumably less lonely than my friend's 9-year-old.

In sum, the relationship between dense and not-so-dense residential neighborhoods is not a simple dichotomy (walkable vs. not walkable) but a trichotomy: very low density areas that are walkable (if at all) only for adults, medium-density areas where both adults and children can walk within the neighborhood, and more compact areas where people can easily leave the neighborhood by public transit.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



it's great when she's 9, but what about when she's 13?

The busiest streets in my city - outside of downtown - can be found in our biggest Orthodox Jewish neighborhood on Saturday evening. And it's a neighborhood of homes on quarter-acre lots. I grew up in a similar area, which at 10 or 11 was great for visiting friends' houses, going to the park, etc. But as soon as I turned 13 it became a prison.

I think generous lots are nice for families with young children who a) need space to run around or b) are too scared by the media to let their kids walk to a public park, but after that, it's a real burden. And is "quarter-acre lots" really medium-density? I would think of it more on the low end.

So What Is The Advantage of Quarter Acre?

Children would be able to walk around even more easily in streetcar suburbs with one-eight acre or one-tenth acre lots, and there could be decent transit service. What is the advantage of quarter-acre?

I am also a bit surprised to hear quarter-acre called "medium density" - so you have to get to half-acre or acre lots before it is "low density." I have always considered one-quarter-acre low density, and one-eightth to one-tenth acre medium density.

This is what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "defining deviance down." Standards have shifted, so neighborhoods that would have been considered low-density a few decades ago are now sometimes considered medium-density.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

excellent points in your posts

I definitely agree that the closer children get to adulthood, the more density they need to be satisfied. One of the things I have learned from being around young families [both in my neighborhood and in my extended family] is how people of different ages have different needs. The youngest children really don't need much contact with the world beyond their families and schools; indeed, parents of the youngest children seem to be fairly happy with sprawl because it is easier to drive small children around than to walk with them. Medium-size children [say, from the ages of 8 to 12] benefit from medium density but perhaps aren't ready to use public transit to go outside their neighborhoods. Teenagers, by contrast, really should be in more transit-accessible, compact neighborhoods where they can walk to shops and visit other neighborhoods.

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