The hard part of higher density

Efficient transit and denser land use go hand in hand; but increasing the density of an established urban area is often difficult and painful. An examination why.

Portland is often feted as a successful example of a quality transit system. And for a mid-sized North American city, such praise is well deserved–even if that qualifier is tantamount to grading on the curve. But many transit advocates from the “real” transit cities are fond of pointing out that our little burg is nothing compared to the large cities of the world–or, perhaps more importantly, to midsize of cities of similar size in Europe. (Or even in Canada–the city of Calgary, which has only slightly more than half the population of metro Portland boasts a light rail system with over twice the ridership. And greater Vancouver BC, slightly larger than the Portland/Couv metropolitan area, blows Portland away in transit metrics).

And such criticisms are, in many ways, entirely correct. Outside the “core” (which I define here as the West Hills to I-205, and Columbia Boulevard to Johnson Creek), and a few dedicated corridors in the suburbs (such as the Baseline/185th/Cornell corridor in Washington County), the metro area consists mainly of auto-centric suburban sprawl–not the sort of land use which is conducive to quality transit. By numerous metrics (such as cost/passenger and passengers/route-km), Portland’s transit is less effective than many of its international peers. The major contributing factor to this is land use, in particular, a lack of density–any efficiency parameter that has distance in the denominator is going to suffer if a longer route is needed to serve a critical mass of customers–as lower density means a lower number of passengers in a given route or stop’s catchment area.

One on hand, it can be argued that comparing Portland to, say, New York (or even a small European city such as Strasbourg, France) is unfair and pointless. Transit is not fungible; we can’t solve mobility problems in Portland by building transit in Manhattan–we need to serve the city in which we live. But if you want transit (and other forms of urban infrastructure such as utilities) which are really cost-effective, the density question is one of fundamental importance. And while we can’t serve the Portland area by building transit elsewhere, we can serve it better by encouraging higher density and more efficient forms of land use.

Why bother?
A common criticism of Portland’s transit plans is that we don’t currently have the necessary density to support a Really Good System, especially in corridors not already established–so why bother? An oft-proposed alternative is to focus on roads for the masses–build more (and wider) freeways instead for the bulk of suburban commuters to use, and keep just enough bus service so those who can’t drive can still get around; and to concentrate transit where it already makes sense, and generally, already exists in a reasonable form. To limit infrastructure enhancements to support transit to the core city, and provide ample park-and-rides to make crossing between “autopia” and “transitworld” less painful.

The issues with this approach (and the motivating factors of this blog) are as follows.

  • When engaging in planning, especially of long-term infrastructure, it’s wise to plan for what conditions are expected to be over time, not just what they are today. Building out MAX throughout the region might not be a wise investment were the energy, pollution, and storage problems associated with automobiles to suddenly go away, but if one predicts a world with increasingly expensive gasoline and increased concerns about pollution, then it makes perfect sense.
  • The problem with a Portland-centric approach is that TriMet is a regionally-funded and chartered agency; for TriMet to only focus on Portland is not politically viable.
  • “Social service” transit is extremely inefficient, especially if it tries to be comprehensive–and services mainly used by the poor are increasingly viewed as a form of welfare–which can result a loss of political support and funding for the service, resulting in it becoming even more a service-of-last-resort, resulting in a greater stigma and even more withdrawal of public support, ad infinitum.

However, if we assume that Peak Oil is coming or already here, and given that we’re increasingly turning to more expensive forms of oil production such as shale oil extraction and deepwater drilling, it’s a good bet to make–then driving is going to get more expensive. Higher fuel costs will make comprehensive transit will become more and more of a necessity. (The tipping point currently seems to be somewhere between $3 and $4 a gallon; last I looked regular gas was $3.199 per gallon at a random gas station in Beaverton). Increasing service to suburbia will need to be part of equation. And to make the needed transit cost-effective, it helps to increase density. As venture capitalist Peter Christensen wrote:

Basically, any city that’s building a light rail or subway line and not dramatically increasing the zoning around it is throwing money away. Without the proper land use, there’s not enough population to drive demand, without demand there’s not enough incentive to provide good levels of service, and without good levels of service people will find it faster to drive.

In addition to increasing transit service (and connections for human-powered mobility as well), it also helps to obviate the need for longer trips in order to reduce total person-miles traveled. One way to do this is to encourage more mixed-use development. Many suburban neighborhoods are residential-only; buying a gallon of milk requires getting in the car (though biking will work for the sufficiently motivated). In theory, usage patterns and density are orthogonal; in practice, though, higher density areas tend to segregate different uses less.

But increasing density, and changing established usage patterns, are hard–especially in a democratic society, where the government cannot simply order this outcome by fiat. (The fact that we live in a democratic society is something I regard as an unqualified good thing, BTW…) One of the main reasons that it’s hard is because often times, the people who live in established lower density areas simply happen to like it that way. Not all do–many people who aren’t wealthy live where they can afford to, not where they would necessarily like to, and it’s been often argued that established land-use regulations have produced a surplus of sprawl. But many suburban dwellers dislike what they perceive as negative externalities (some of which stand up to scrutiny and some of which don’t) of high-density living, and thus choose to live where they can avoid these costs (not all of which are financial).

A few other points ought to be made up front:

  • Experience teaches that high density requires that at least one of the things be true: Geographic limitations, strong land use controls, or high land prices. If land on the perimeter of a region is both cheap and available, then it’s more rational (from a short-term economic perspective) to consume it for development, rather than conserve it.
  • Any attempt at growing density is almost assuredly fruitless without a growing population. The reason for this is that while populations grow and shrink over time, as people move in, move out, are born, and die; the urban footprint of an area generally only trends in one direction–it continues to grow. Large-scale abandonment of urban areas generally only occurs due to catastrophic events. As a result, if we assume that the denominator of the density fraction never shrinks, it follows that the numerator must increase for the ratio to rise.
  • A region that has a shrinking population (current examples in the US include Buffalo and Detroit) has far more serious problems to consider; for much of the same reason.

Portland’s population trend remains upwards, however, even if there is evidence that the growth rate is slowing down. With that in mind, here are the different ways to accommodate the housing needs of a rising population without paving over farmland and expanding the urban footprint.

The really easy way: reducing vacancy
Much of this post discusses ways of increasing the supply of housing stock within a region, without expanding its perimeter. But before we go there, it’s worth stating the obvious: Building more housing is generally not a wise idea from a density-improving point of view, if there is a significant amount of existing vacant housing. Lots of vacancies may indicate a downward population trend, which is frequently a Bad Thing. It may also indicate one of several other things which are easier to deal with.

  • Housing mismatched to the demographics of a region–such as lots of larger homes in an area dominated with retired couples; or a surplus of houses for sale when the market is demanding rentals.
  • An oversupply due to a recent housing bubble. Characteristics of this include sellers frequently demanding more than buyers are willing to pay (often to a desire to minimize losses or to avoid going underwater on a mortgage), lots of inventory which is bank-owned or short sale, and tight credit. This all should sound familiar to any of you who’ve checked out the real estate market in Portland, recently.
  • The housing stock is excessively dilapidated or otherwise viewed as unsuitable
  • The housing stock is concentrated in areas considered undesirable or blighted. (If the entire area is considered undesirable, this is a serious problem; the existence of blighted areas within a larger community, far less so.

One other important thing to remember here is that the homebuilding industry (by which I mean developers as well as other construction and real estate interests) frequently is a major player in land-use planning. While their technical expertise is frequently useful, this is a group that makes money when homes are built, not when existing housing stock is re-occupied. Despite the large amount of unsold inventory (not all of which is necessarily vacant, but much of it is), homebuilders still want to build more, and are agitating for increasing the supply of available land. It is in the economic interests of this industry to encourage urban sprawl, not to prevent it. Something to remember.

The large number of vacancies in Portland at the present time seems to be tied to the bursting of the housing bubble. Prior to the bubble bursting, Portland was definitely a sellers’ market; and in such conditions, adding new housing stock made more sense. With that in mind, we now turn to ways to increase the supply of housing stock while maintaining the perimeter; focusing on particular on ways to do so that optimized land use for transit.

The easy way: transit oriented development.

The Pearl District viewed from the US Bancorp Tower. Image courtesy Wikipedia

One of the easiest ways to increase density–and the one which produces much lower levels of resistance from existing residents (because there aren’t any), is to build new high-density (and mixed use) developments on greenfields or brownfields. Such things are commonly called “transit oriented development”, especially when done in cooperation with a transit agency or project, or which boast efficient transit access as a feature. Such developments avoid the NIMBY problem almost completely, as the land is generally unoccupied beforehand. (Here, I’m assuming that large tracts are developed, not the occasional vacant lot; for the latter, see the next section).

The problems with TOD and other forms of greenfield/brownfield development are as follows:

  • When done in cooperation with a transit agency (and especially if developer-financed funding schemes are employed), such developments raise issues of excessive entanglement between the transit agency and the developer(s); and in some cases lead to charges of corruption or of “developer-oriented transit” (Portland Streetcar actually uses the term “development-oriented transit” in one of their online brochures).
  • When new development is done in conjunction with new infrastructure, it raises the question as to whether the agency is neglecting existing riders and communities in favor of new neighborhoods, especially if the development isn’t on the way to somewhere else where large numbers of people already work or live.
  • New developments require the availability of greenfields or brownfields to develop on. Greenfield development on the periphery of a region is generally available, but using such land increases the overall urban footprint–which is what we call “sprawl”. Greenfields in the interior of a region are often hard to find. Brownfields are often more readily available, but brownfield development is expensive, as the prior use has to be cleaned up and removed. Conversion of land from industrial or commercial use to residential use also raises economic questions–a city needs someindustry to survive, after all.
  • Some transit projects, particularly those intended as “trunk” routes or located adjacent to freeways, aren’t as conducive to TOD. This is a common criticism of both the Green Line along I-205, and MLR along OR 99E–the highway (and the UPRR tracks in the case of Milwaukie MAX) make redevelopment along the line more difficult, and/or potential developments less attractive.
  • Some transit projects which don’t suffer from being adjacent to highways, still haven’t seen as much redevelopment as might be ideal. There have been pockets of redevelopment along the Blue Line in Rockwood and Beaverton, but many tracts remain unchanged, and there are a few noted failures such as The Round.

The hard way: infill and upzoning

Infill development in the UK. Image copyright Nigel Chadwick, courtesy Wikipedia

Many critics of opening up new tracts of land for residential development, whether green/brownfields internal to a region, or new tracts of land on the perimeter, point out the obvious: There’s room to grow within the existing urban footprint. Most neighborhoods have vacant lots (parcels zoned for residential use, but without any building), oversized lots which could be subdivided, and other properties which could be used to add housing units. In addition, there’s always the potential for redevlopment–removing existing housing stock to replace it with new, higher-density housing stock. Here’s where things really start getting controversial.

Many people like living in large lots. My personal opinion is that if you have one, more power to you–I don’t support coercive land-use policies of the sort that force people to subdivide, or the condemnation of housing stock to build other housing stock. (More on this topic below). On the other hand, many people who like living in large lots (and thus who do so) also like to insist that their neighbors should live in large lots as well–and therein lies the rub. There are several different ways that such preferences get enforced; the two most common in the US being covenants and zoning. While some places (famously Texas) lack zoning laws and land-use policy is done entirely through covenants, zoning is the most common way communities determine land-use policies.

Zoning has many purposes, for better or worse. Among the purposes of various zoning designations–explicitly stated or otherwise–include segregation of incompatible uses (nobody wants a hog farm or oil refinery next door); preservation of neighborhood “character”, preventing the overuse of infrastructure such as roads or sewerage, exclusion of poverty, and safety. Among the more controversial types of zoning, especially in the land-use field, are those which impose density maximums not justified by safety or infrastructure concerns. Many people view upzoning (increasing the maximum permitted density in an area) as an infringement on their rights, particularly if doing so adversely affects property values or requires new infrastructure be constructed (such as sewer conversions). A good way of mitigating some of these concerns is ensuring that developers who increase the need for infrastructure in a community bear the brunt of the costs (the same applies to new development); rather than externalizing the cost.

Opposition to upzoning can be particularly fierce when multifamily housing, particularly rental apartments, become part of the mix. (Similar issues apply to developments such as trailer parks). Many homeowners associate such housing with poverty, and the numerous social pathologies that poverty can bring, and are terrified by the prospect of a “project” moving in next door. (Country/western signer Tom T. Hall once penned a song about the perceived evils of upzoning, famously complaining that “they put in a trailer park before I could move”). Of course, adding in apartments is as an easy way to increase density of an existing community, and inexpensive to boot.

Infill has one other difficulty: Developers don’t like it as much. While homebuilders are generally happy for any opportunity to make money, the biggest moneymaking opportunities are found in subdivision development: when an entire parcel is subdivided, built up, and marketed as part of a development project. This gives the developer economies of scale that simply aren’t present with one-off construction, and in new developments, the developer frequently gets to set the rules, rather than having to abide by existing covenants and regulations. Infill which involves tearing down existing structures (particularly ones which still have value) is even more expensive–buying a perfectly good building only to bulldoze it costs money–all else being equal, developers would rather buy vacant lots.

The poverty issue is a tough one. The social pathologies associated with it (crime, addition, dysfunctional family arrangements) are real, and can impose negative externalities on the surrounding community. However, the negative externalities of poverty are exacerbated when the poor are herded into ghettos or slums, rather than distributed throughout the larger population–this is one reason that subsidized housing sprinkled through “nice” neighborhoods is actually an effective measure, as the problems don’t compound anywhere near as much when the poor aren’t concentrated. On the other hand, many view the segregation and concentration of the poor into slums to be a good thing–as it keeps the pathologies and negative externalities away from their own homes and families; this attitude seems to be frequently common among those who view the poor as the architects of their own misery, and thus not a problem which society at large has a moral obligation to deal with. Physical isolation of the poor also permits political arrangements by which impoverished neighborhoods aren’t subsidized by weathier neighboring communities–a longstanding cause of capital flight to the suburbs in this country is the ability of separate municipalities to keep their tax dollars to themselves. Portland is fortunate, to be sure, that it doesn’t have any truly awful slums–there is nothing in our city that remotely compares to places like Camden or East St. Louis.

The really hard way: forced redevelopment and condemnation

Downtown Portland, middle 20th century. Harbor Drive occupies west bank of the Willamette River, I-5 and I-84 are under construction on east bank in background, and many blocks of South Portland have been cleared for redevelopment. Click on picture for larger image. (Photo courtesy of Portland Development Commission)

And now we get to the really controversial part–forced redevelopment. This refers to various schemes where the the occupant of a property (or a larger tract) is forced out, the properties are redeveloped, and then made available for re-occupation in a new form. Occupants can include both owners (who are forced out by eminent domain) and renters (who are evicted from a property, either as a result of a condemnation or a voluntary decision to sell by the landlord). Renters frequently suffering particularly adverse effects–their only reward is frequently higher rents, if they come back at all; unlike owners, they don’t enjoy any of the windfalls of redevelopment such as increased property values or condemnation awards.

Often times, though not always, forced redevelopment schemes are done under the aegis of urban renewal. Many African-American (in particular) communities around the country suffered the bulldozer as part of grand schemes to clean up “blighted” areas–in some cases, the targeting of black neighborhoods was intentional. The history of urban renewal in Portland is littered with examples of abuse and error–schemes which seemed like good ideas to the powerbrokers that planned them, but today are regarded with regret. Much of Portland’s Albina neighborhood was destroyed to make room for the Memorial Coliseum, Emanuel Hospital, and the Minnesota Street Freeway (now Interstate 5); likewise the South Portland neighborhood was ripped apart to make way for highways and the high-rise developments to the east of Portland State University. Lest anyone think that this is a phenomenon of the past, consider the current brouhaha around the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, a development which included a controversial Supreme Court case, where the Court refused to consider a lower court’s ruling upholding the power of the government to exercise eminent domain on behalf of a private developer.

But government powers like eminent domain and urban renewal are not necessary for disruptive redevelopment. Many powerbrokers in Beaverton are promoting the planned Murray Village development, a mixed-use development set to break ground next spring near the corner of Murray and Jenkins, across the street from both Nike and Tektronix/Maxim. This project has been lauded as an example of redevelopment that does not depend on urban renewal, and has even been praised by the proponents of the anti-urban-renewal petition drive in Clackamas County. What many who promote this project gloss over is that several years ago, there was an active community on the grounds (a trailer park), whose residents were kicked out several years ago when the landlord decided upscale real estate was a better market to be in. (And I’m quite certain that both the city and county were more than happy to see the trailer park closed down and the poor residents therein dispersed). As a result, the northeast corner of Murray and Jenkins has been vacant for over three years now.

A major difficulty for large redevelopment projects is that they frequently require large tracts of land; which often must be aggregated from separate lots owned by separate individuals–many of whom may not be interested in the project. Thus getting anything done often requires some sort of coercive method (eminent domain, or mass evictions); with the result that the beneficiaries (and residents) of the new development are seldom the old residents. (And even when people aren’t kicked out, redevelopment often leads to gentrification–residents can no longer afford rents and taxes, and are force to move anyway). Such wholesale disruptions of neighborhoods, for whatever reason, frequently damage communities far beyond the properties directly affected.

Regardless of the merits of an urban renewal project, and regardless of the demands and goals of regional planning bodies such as Metro, there is a dirty little secret, however: These sorts of redevelopment simply don’t happen without the cooperation of municipal government–either county commissioners for unincorporated areas, or City Hall for cities. Metro can prevent a city from expanding beyond an already established urban growth boundary, but it cannot force a city to upzone. A decade ago, many thought Damascus would be the next community to urbanize in the Portland area, and many current infrastructure plans assume a significant increase in the area’s population. But Damascus incorporated, taking control of land use planning from the county board of commissioners, putting the brakes on such plans. Damascus may still densify, but it will be on terms much more favorable to exisitng residents. Following the example of Damascus, the communities of Oak Grove and Jennings Lodge, also considered for major changes by Clackamas County government, are also considering incorporation.

The unspeakable way: AbandonmentUrban_prairie_Detroit_2.jpg

Abandoned neighborhood in Detroit, MI; so-called “urban prairie”. Image copyright JT Michcock, courtesy Wikipedia

Earlier, it was noted that the urban footprint of a city grows monotonically, barring catastrophe. “Catastrophe” can take many forms, including natural disasters which destroy cities or neighborhoods; but it can also take the form of economic disasters. The West is littered with numerous examples of “ghost towns”–settlements which were abandoned when they lost their economic vitality; on which stand the ruins of what used to be a thriving community. In many cities and towns, one can find plenty of examples of neighborhoods which are full of boarded-up buildings, neglect, and disrepair–in some cases, inhabited by the poor and desperate, in other cases not inhabited at all.

And then there’s Detroit. The Motor City, a place which once was one of America’s economic and cultural crown jewels, has been buffeted by widespread political corruption (a former mayor was sent to jail last year), devastation of the US automobile industry, decades of “white flight” to the suburbs, and the foolish decision to draft Joey Harrington (seeing if anyone’s still paying attention–both Bob and I went to Oregon State :). As a result of this, Detroit’s population has been shrinking, and those that are left are increasingly those who cannot afford to get out. At a time when demand for urban services (the cost of which are highly dependent on land area) is steady, and pension costs are escalating, the city’s tax base has been plummeting.

As a result, the city is considering taking the unprecedented step of abandoning some of its neighborhoods: Enticing residents to move out (and relocate closer to the city center), and stopping all urban services to the abandoned neighborhoods. Essentially, the city is trying to shrink in a controlled fashion; to become more smaller and compact–to become more dense–as a smaller urban footprint will be easier for the city to serve on a limited budget.

Unfortunately, the abandoned properties don’t magically revert back to productive agricultural land. At least not overnight. Many such properties will house vagrants and squatters, and a few leftover residents who simply can’t afford to move, and will for a long time. Many of the properties being abandoned are industrial sites; full of the waste products of heavy industry. But some of them are slowly being reclaimed by nature, as buildings are overgrown and unmaintained pavement is undermined and cracked by new plant growth and washed away by the wind and weather. The phenomenon known as “urban prairie” has arisen in other blighted areas where people gave up and left, and now it’s happening on a large scale in the Motor City.

There’s no evidence at this point, of course, that any such fate awaits Portland. The metro area has experienced economic stagnation, but the main industries here in the area are not in the same sorry shape as the domestic auto industry. (Indeed, the state of Oregon has managed to withstand an economic catastrophe similar in scope to that which bedevils Detroit; namely the demise of the timber industry in the 1980s). Our politics aren’t anywhere near as corrupt, and the urban growth boundary, in addition to other beneficial effects, limits the ability of capital to flee the city for the suburbs, leaving behind the poor to fend for themselves.

Some final thoughts
This article is a lot longer than I initially planned it to be; those who are still reading this far should give themselves a pat on the back. :) But transit and land use planning go hand-in-hand, and in many cases, the transit part is the easy part of the equation. If newcomers come to the city, it’s cheaper (in the long run) to find places for them to live within the existing urbanized areas, rather than building new homes on the perimeter. But in the short run, the reverse is often true–and many people jealously guard the existing conditions of where they live; it’s home, after all. Which makes accommodating new arrivals in a way which we won’t regret in a future world where gas costs $8 a gallon, a hard problem to solve.

Preparing for that day, with appropriate infrastructure and land use for a world without cheap gas, is difficult and expensive.

But failing to do so, will be worse.


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