Density in Context

Densification is a sacred cow within insular planning if there ever was one. Numerous books such as Edward Glaeser’s “The Triumph of the City” suggest that our densest cities are the key to sustainability going forward in the 21st century.

Proponents of densification cite all manner of studies which suggest that denser living arrangements are less environmentally impactful than sprawling ones. For instance, it’s often stated that if every New York City resident lived a suburban lifestyle, the ecological impact would be much greater.

Many people move to the city from the suburbs thinking that they are helping the environment as a byproduct of their decision. However, a few weeks ago I showed that how the research of Geoffrey West brings this assumption under question. His work shows that the infrastructural efficiencies provided by higher densities is more than offset by the increased affluence, and hence consumption of the citizens in those bigger cities, resulting in more ecological degradation, not less.

And last week I talked about how rising population density creates a positive feedback loop in the city as follows:

Rising population density –> greater economies of scale –> increased production –> greater affluence –> higher rates of consumption –> greater ecological impact –>higher urban metabolism and inducement to densify further

I showed that the environmental consequences of this positive feedback loop can be identified by considering it in terms of the I=PAT formula: higher population and population density (P) lead to higher rates of affluence (A) and higher rates of technological application (T) which lead inevitably to higher amounts of environmental impact (I).

I concluded that the only way to offset environmental impact is to reduce the I=PAT inputs, and that the first step in that process is overturning the deeply-held assumption of insular planning that increasing density leads to sustainability.

This week I’m going to continue to criticize this faulty assumption. To do so, I’m going to have to illuminate and dispel some commonly-held misconceptions about the environmental implications of cities and suburbs.

Too often the discussion of sustainability is framed in terms of “density vs. sprawl”, as if these were two diametrical endpoints on some mythical continuum.  At its root, the implication is that sustainability increases as density increases and unsustainability increases as sprawl increases.

Evidently it never occurs to the subscribers of this faulty logic that both very dense cities and sprawling suburbs are unsustainable. Splitting hairs between them is a bit like choosing between paper and plastic bags at the supermarket: neither is the best option.

Indeed, very dense cities and sprawling suburbs have much more in common than many planners realize. Within a wealthy Western metastatic context, the distinction between them is nearly irrelevant as both are utterly dependent upon fossil fuels, and hence, grossly unsustainable.

That’s why I use the term metastatic city to refer simultaneously to dense urban areas and the sprawling suburbs that encircle them. They comprise separate but related aspects of the same dynamic dissipative system and are powered by the same motive force: the influx of massive amounts of fossil fuel.

Another way to consider the impacts of metastatic arrangements of living – both dense urban areas and their sprawling suburbs – is by examining their embeddedness. When I talk about embeddedness, I’m referring to the sum of all the energy and materials required to produce goods or services or maintain infrastructure, as if they were incorporated into the product, service or structure itself.

In The Laws of Jungle, Part 1 I describe how we can learn much about the operations of cities if we consider how they function as dynamic dissipative systems. In that discussion, I talked about how the internal processes of all dynamic dissipative systems create emergent complexity. The more complex the dynamic dissipative system, the more embedded energy and resources it requires to sustain itself and grow.

Cities are massively complex dynamic dissipative systems which depend upon a vast infrastructure for their existence. Without all of the mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating, transporting, installing, servicing, repairing, and decommission of infrastructure, cities would cease to be.

Similarly, as discussed last week cities create conditions which support more complex and dynamic social and economic relationships like specialization. Essentially, cities allow people to efficiently leverage greater economies of scale into greater production, thereby requiring a longer and more elaborate chain of transactions, ultimately resulting in more energy and resource throughput – the very definition of embeddedness.

It’s important to note that both dense urban areas and sprawling suburbs in the Western world feature exceedingly high levels of complexity and hence, embeddedness. In short, both flavors of metastatic living are wildly unsustainable, as they are both indispensably dependent upon fossil fuels.

Yet there’s a hardy myth in insular planning that dense urban areas are not dependent upon oil like sprawling suburbs. Of course they are; it’s just that in dense areas that dependence is hidden from view – it’s embedded in everyday life more thoroughly than in the suburbs.

Planners are quick to criticize sprawling suburbs for endemic rates of auto use and low-density development, and for an obvious reason: you can see the energy being burned directly in the cars and the land being wasted, all in full view. Scarcely a better example of energy and land use wastefulness can be imagined than traffic backed up on the interstate highway at rush hour.

In dense urban areas however, the impacts are shifted around, and largely out of sight. Their space-consuming nature is not as obvious as it is in the sprawling suburbs. Instead, dense urban areas’ voracious metabolisms are maintained by the importation of energy and resources from around the planet. Correspondingly, the effects of this enormous ecological footprint are disparately peppered over the whole planet, too.

On the other hand, anyone can verify that dense urban areas all feature traffic too – just like the sprawling suburbs, mind you – except in addition to that, they have greater quantities of infrastructure and greater populations performing higher degrees of specialized work. Remember, the greater the density, the greater the embeddedness and throughput of energy and resources.

As I discussed a few weeks ago, the energy and resources that are saved through infrastructural efficiency in dense cities are not retired but instead are reinvested back into the system in the name of growth. This phenomenon is called the rebound effect and it ensures that per capita efficiency gains will have no positive impact on reducing total energy and resource throughput. And that’s a problem, because nature doesn’t care how efficient you are – she only cares for raw totals.

Also, as I showed last week, infrastructural efficiencies that are realized by higher density are offset by vigorous consumption patterns. Like with energy and resources, finished goods from around the world find their way into the shops of dense cities so that proportionately wealthy urbanites may purchase them.

In short, dense urban areas and sprawling suburbs have much more in common than a lot of planners acknowledge: they are both deeply embedded dynamic dissipative systems. Neither will be exempt from suffering as energy supplies get tighter. The fact is that suburbs will have a set of challenges and dense cities will have a different set of challenges.

When you take a step back, the notion that densely populated cities are environmentally benign is actually pretty odd – after all, that’s where the people are. Many planners ignore or discount the side effects of the rebound effect, embeddedness and consumption when determining what’s sustainable because these phenomena so thoroughly permeate our metastatic way of life that they pass unnoticed.

I want to be clear that it’s not my intention to dismiss the value of density, or of cities for that matter. On the contrary, cities have historically provided humans with arrangements of living that fostered rich cultural, artistic and scientific achievements – in a sustainable way.

What I would like to suggest is that insular planning has difficulty distinguishing between two related but essentially different concepts: liveability and sustainability. Whereas liveability is concerned with human well-being and comfort specifically, sustainability is concerned with a society’s ability to persist over time and in line with nature’s limits. I explored this distinction in some detail in a previous post. The essential idea is that insular planning is founded in the mistaken belief that nature exists primarily to further the interests of the human imperative – providing ever-greater standards of material comfort, wealth, and fossil fuel-dependent technologies upon an ever-greater number of people (but not all), regardless of the environmental cost.

It seems that insular planning’s anthropocentric sustainability recommendations are actually liveability recommendations in drag. Whenever I see sustainability recommendations discussing nature in terms of places suitable for leisure activities for humans, it becomes clear to me that it’s liveability which is being discussed, not sustainability in the terms I’ve outlined.

Now of course it almost goes without saying that dense urban areas provide greater liveability than the suburbs and their fast food chains, auto dependence, lack of cultural options, strip malls and everything else James Howard Kunstler describes so amusingly. That’s because insular planning does do a damn fine job of combating sprawl and all the deleterious social and economic consequences it causes. It should be commended for improving the liveability of cities.

But let’s not kid ourselves that these improvements in liveability correspond to improvements in sustainability. As we’ve seen, rising density has side effects which negatively affect the environment, and these shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly.

So if very dense cities and sprawling suburbs are cheek and jowl on the wrong end of the sustainability spectrum, then what would the right side look like? No one knows for sure, but it certainly won’t be nearly as energy intensive and physically expansive as the metastatic city.

Another part of the answer can be discovered by considering insular planning’s conflation of two interactive yet separate properties: density and compactness. While density is a static measure of people per area, compactness implies a minimum density and urban form considerations. History shows us that many European cities have thrived for thousands of years with vibrant main streets and centers in a mixed use, compact form without very high densities long before the Age of Exuberance began.

This would suggest that within a limited energy context, compactness is more of a sustainable quality than density, which we’ve seen induces further growth and consumption of energy and resources. It also suggests that by moderating density above the minimum threshold necessary to support an urban form and below the threshold that a region will allow, we can ensure the benefits of cities without the negative environmental drawbacks. I spoke in very general terms about my vision for such a city a while back, and I plan on discussing it in much more detail later.

In the meantime, it’s important that I continue to discuss the pitfalls of insular planning. And there are fewer pitfalls bigger than insular planning’s assumption that technology will somehow ‘save us’. That’s where I’ll pick things up next week.

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