Urban sprawl is bad. Not having enough housing to meet demand is also bad. It now appears that reconciling these two things may be harder than we thought. But not impossible!

The majority of you, who read this site primarily for urban development meta-analysis, are already familiar with the data released yesterday by the economist Issi Romem. He finds that the U.S. cities that are doing the best job of keeping up an adequate supply of new housing construction are expanding outwards, rather than becoming denser within their existing footprint. His findings show “that housing production is proportional to outward expansion, and helps explain the fact with two observations: first, that new home construction is skewed towards low density areas and, second, that in recent decades densification has grown much less common, particularly in those cities whose expansion has slowed down the most.”

On the surface, this is a bummer. The dream of the perfect city is a dream of density. Urban sprawl—the more or less unrestrained outward expansion of low-density new development—leads to horrific traffic and commute times, environmental unsustainability, and a general shittiness of vibe that characterizes bland exurbs from Atlanta to Phoenix. Fighting to prevent urban sprawl is an unmistakable good. In theory, we accomplish that by adding density to existing city areas instead of just moving forever away from city centers with miles of plastic suburban developments.

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The problem is, we also have an affordable housing crisis. Cities, especially popular cities like San Francisco and New York, are in desperate need of a lot of new housing to counteract the exploding rents and home prices. And Romem’s data indicates that, at least so far, growth in housing has come from building outwards—sprawl. Cities have not, in recent history, increased their existing density enough to even begin to meet their new and growing affordable housing needs.

Okay. Facts are facts. Must these facts be interpreted to mean that urban sprawl is a necessity, or that we must choose between endless sprawl and a housing crisis? No. There are two obvious tweaks we could make to existing development patterns to address both issues:

  1. As Romem himself has noted, one of the prime reasons that most development is sprawl is that we have designed it that way. We protect existing city areas with zoning laws that make it impossible to greatly increase their density. Therefore, new development seeks open space. This is not a state of nature—it is a political choice. “No one is really thinking about tearing down single-family neighborhoods and building apartment buildings,” Romem told Bloomberg. Well, maybe it’s time to do that? Assuming the macro trend of mass migrations of people all over the world towards cities continues, cities have to get denser, period. Turning existing low density city areas into high density ones is inevitable.
  2. Of course, no one wants to go bulldoze a neighborhood of historic houses in order to erect looming apartment blocks. There are some legitimate reasons for preserving low density areas in some circumstances. (These circumstances should be more pressing than “I live there and I can write a check to my city council member because fuck everyone else now that I got mine.”) Also, there is nothing wrong with growing the footprint of cities outwards per se; we want to prevent growing outwards in a low-density, sprawling fashion. So let builders build out—as long as they build high density projects. Sure, you can put a 10,000-person development out on the edge of town—but it has to be high density apartments, not endless fucking cul-de-sacs. Developers just want the money. The good density habits are another political choice that we can make if want to. Plus, high density development on the edges of cities offers a way to preserve historic existing low-density areas inside of the cites while still maintaining an adequate housing stock.

Build up, not out. And if you’re building out, build up while you do it.

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[And guess what else they can build outside town... a sports stadium, for sports.]