The general principle is simple: more density equals lower prices and less environmental impact. But suburbia's imprint is deep, both on cities themselves and on how we expect to inhabit them.
In an article on Grist, Ben Adler doubts whether the urbanist trend will be enough to combat the ills of low density. Although urban populations are rising, "We're watching the demographics of cities change without getting the carbon-emissions-reducing benefits that the back-to-the-cities movement promised."
After decades of what we now consider underdevelopment, cities face chronic housing shortages. "Given that it's the capital of a country with twice as many people as in 1950, you wouldn't expect Washington to have shrunk, would you? Well, it has, and it hasn't fully bounced back."
And even though developers are steadily adding units, social factors stemming from the suburban boom are getting in the way. "D.C. doesn't suffer from a shrinking stock of housing. In fact, it has the most dwelling units in its history — it just has fewer people in each home [...] Middle-class Americans have simply become accustomed to more private space and comfort than previous generations."
Adler traces part of the problem to the racial and spacial vagaries of urban infilling. "In certain neighborhoods that have become trendy, high demand bids up housing prices, empty lots get filled in, and the population grows. In other neighborhoods, demand remains low and abandonment continues." Environmentalists (and some urbanists) want to fill in these empty spaces, only to confront inevitable gentrification and displacement as prices rise.
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