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The great intensification debate–what’s better for cities?

Photograph San Francisco Bay Blues by Stefano Termanini on 500px

San Francisco Bay Blues by Stefano Termanini on 500px

I recently stumbled upon a great Treehugger article by Lloyd Alter called: The real triumph of the city will be seen in Buffalo (2014). The post is partially a response to economist Ed Glaeser’s popular book, Triumph of the City, which I’ve mentioned and cited many times before here on ATC.

Lloyd’s thesis is basically that Ed is wrong in arguing that reducing the barriers to building is the most effective way to maintain housing affordability; that cities are really made out of flesh, rather than bricks and mortar; and that urbanists need to move beyond the view that a city’s past should be preserved at all costs.

Lloyd then goes on to argue that rather than continuing to over-intensify cities like New York, San Francisco, and Toronto, we should be turning our attention to former powerhouses like Buffalo and trying to figure out how to reinvigorate those cities. The bones are already in place.

Now, I don’t disagree that there’s lots of potential in cities such as a Buffalo and Detroit. I’ve written a lot about Detroit and I’m genuinely rooting for the city. But I don’t think it’s as simple as it sounds to shift our attention, and I don’t agree with all of the critiques of Glaeser’s work.

As important as built form is, cities like Buffalo and Detroit remind us that architecture and buildings alone aren’t enough to build a city. There are countless masterpieces – such as Michigan Central Station in Detroit – that regrettably sit abandoned. You need people and communities.

There’s also a snowball effect. 

As a city becomes more successful, there’s a natural tendency for more people to want to be there. It’s no different than the network effect experienced by a social network. A social network without people has no value. But the more people you add to it, the more valuable it becomes and the more difficult it becomes to replace.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that people will put up with expensive real estate and small apartments just to live in cities like San Francisco. That’s where they want to be. And as long as the demand to live in those cities is increasing, I continue to believe that it makes sense to build more, not less, housing and to make it reasonably easy to do so.

At the same time, I believe whole heartedly in heritage preservation. As a trained architect, there’s a strong possibility that I would shed an actual tear should a building with heritage value be torn down in my city or in any city in the world. 

And that’s why when I was on CBC radio last week I said that neighborhood investment needs to be a balance between preservation and progress. The Twittersphere later blasted me for using the term “progress”, but I think you get my position.

My interpretation of Glaeser’s work has never been that he supports completely erasing a city’s past in order to make way for the future. If that is his position, then I too disagree with it. 

My interpretation has instead been that he supports removing unreasonable barriers to development so that cities are able to supply – or can at least try to supply – enough housing to meet growing demand. This also doesn’t exclusively mean high-rise intensification. It could mean removing the barriers in front of things like laneway housing. And I continue to believe that this is a good idea.

I don’t believe that this approach alone will solve all housing problems, but I do think it’s a great place to start.

Thank you Lloyd for the great post.

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