The ‘D’ Word (And, Um, the ‘U’ Word, I Guess)

First off, sorry for the long spans between posts in the past month. I’ve been dealing with some family matters, and of course family comes first. But much of the hectic stuff is behind me, so I can get back to some more regular posting.

Now that all of that is out of the way, I’d like to have a discussion about population density. Yes, the infamous “D” Word that people like to toss around when both opposing a project (“It’s too dense! We aren’t New York!”) or supporting new development (“We need this to increase our neighborhood’s density and foot traffic!”). It’s a phrase that has come up a fair amount both since I started this blog and since my last post about the proposed auto part store for the site adjacent to the 95th Street Metra station. The common refrain seems to be, “Jeff, I agree that we need a more walkable community, but we just don’t have the density of other neighborhoods to support this concept.”

It’s true that the Beverly area is not as densely populated as, say, Edgewater (one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Chicago).

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Beverly (Google Streetview)
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Edgewater (Google Streetview)

But in having this discussion, I think we need to first get some definitions out of the way. In the simplest terms, population density is the ratio that illustrates the number of people concentrated in a given space. Typically, this is exhibited as the number of people per square-mile, or even the number of people per acre.

Population density can be a valuable component of good urbanism — the “U” Word in this piece’s title — and a definition of one requires a definition of the other. Urbanism, what I write about on this blog, concerns the relationship between people and place. It is about how the built environment shapes our social interactions and fosters economic activity. In other words, it’s about how place shapes community, and vice versa.

That said, let me provide a very simplistic example of how the two are related. Say there’s a village in the middle of nowhere. It contains 50 houses in a space that is about one-eighth of a square mile (approximately the size of a Chicago city block) with a general store at the center of town where everyone shops. Say each of these houses contains a different type of living situation. Some house families, others house single people and a few are just roommates living together to save money. On average, there are three people per house. That gives you a population density of about 1,200 per square mile.

That’s a pretty low population density, even by Beverly standards (Beverly’s population density is about 8,200 people per square mile, while Chicago’s overall is 11,900). However, the fact that all of these people live in a compact space, they can all easily access the general store — and friends’ homes — on foot, meaning there is little need to build excess places to park cars in the neighborhood. Although this place has a low population density, it has good urbanism in that the built environment is conducive to a lifestyle in which people have more choices for how they get around. Most will probably walk, but some will probably ride bikes. A few might even drive to that store and park on the street to pick up an extremely large order.

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Woodstock, Illinois. Small town urbanism.

Now, imagine someone builds a cluster of apartment buildings five miles from this town. This is a tightly packed space, and its population density reaches close to Edgewater’s of 33,600 people per square mile. The hook, though, is that the developer didn’t build any commercial space, and each resident must travel to the nearby town’s general store for daily needs. The town is outside a comfortable walking radius, so many people buy cars, necessitating expansive parking lots that make for vast spaces between buildings. What we have here is density without urbanism. We crammed a lot of people into a small space, and although they are ready to walk somewhere, there is nowhere to go. Plus, there are added challenges for the small town like how to deal with the influx of out-of-town shoppers. Do they widen roads and add more infrastructure to accommodate people who don’t live in the community? Can they even afford to do that, since the visitors don’t pay property taxes?

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Bronzeville’s Lake Meadows apartment complex. Density without urbanism. (Google Streetview)

Yes, I realize this scenario is somewhat preposterous, and the real world is much more nuanced than what I describe. But I do believe it represents the type of built environment we should strive for as our neighborhood develops. It also represents the reason why I tend to stop short of saying we desperately need to add population density to our neighborhood — or any neighborhood — to support businesses and civic life. Instead, I tend to support good urbanism. A better way to think about this might be in terms of A) proximity — bringing residential, commercial and civic components closer together, and B) connectivity — making sure that all of these uses are laid out in a compact, interconnected network of streets, sidewalks and trails that supports a wide range of transportation options with a focus on walking. Population density comes about as an offshoot of these principles. As a place becomes more desireable, people will want to live closer to it, and we should accommodate them by gradually increasing the number of residential units in that given location. This should happen in a way that enhances the place’s urbanism and makes us more like the hypothetical small town rather than the faraway cluster of apartments.

Seattle: Where low-density places gradually grow up. (Google Streetview)
Seattle: Where low-density places gradually grow up. (Google Streetview)

This is why talking about density in relation to a single issue — single-use vs. mixed-use adjacent to our train station — is somewhat futile. What we need is to have a larger conversation about how to physically get people on and walking around our main corridors like 95th Street and Western Avenue. This will require a vision for all of our community’s corridors, from 95th to 115th, Western to Pulaski, that is decidedly different from the same-old, same old, because in many places with a large number of vacancies, that is clearly not helping. Saying that 95th Street is currently a high-speed commercial street and should just remain that way doesn’t get to the heart of its troubles.

In other words, yes, plopping a mixed-use building next to the 95th Street will add density, but it probably would only have a marginal effect on walkability in the short term. That doesn’t mean we don’t need a mixed-use building. On the contrary. We need many. We need good urbanism to create good places. We need a plan that lays out what we want the future of our streets to be and that sends a clear message to developers about what we want built in our backyard. And we need to pair this with the necessary infrastructure to support walking and biking. That means calming traffic and putting the focus first on people — people who live here — rather than how many cars we can attract from neighboring communities.

The good news is that we already have the foundation of a great, walkable place. The pieces were handed down from our ancestors in the form of a street grid, public transportation and existing buildings that have a strong relationship to the public realm. If we build on this gradually, we can strengthen the places in our community that need a boost, including 95th Street. As I have written before, no single project is a magic bullet that can turn around our struggling places, and that includes increasing population density. But each project can be an incremental step toward building something better.

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