October of my junior year of high school, I got five pages into Freakonomics and understood that economics was what I should do with my life. I perceived a unique kind of insight — a lens through which I could understand the world. Recently I had an equally powerful experience, with urbanism. My previous essay recounted how land use became a passion. This is the story of why.
Urbanism is the study of how inhabitants of towns and cities interact with the built environment. I am intoxicated by the tangible prospect that allowing people to live in closer proximity will help solve multiple existential crises. I say “allowing” because the most important improvements to land use would happen entirely voluntarily. People are willing to pay for more housing. Many are willing to pay extra to live in a pleasant, walkable neighborhood.
Our society is floundering in myriad areas. Economic inequality is on everyone’s mind as even solidly middle-class households struggle to afford basic necessities, starting with housing. George Floyd’s killing sparked a reckoning about systemic racial injustice, embodied by the persistent segregation of American neighborhoods. The urgent need to minimize greenhouse gas emissions has gone fully mainstream. A certain respiratory virus also seems to have spiked interest in the health costs of air pollution. COVID-19 was the third-leading killer of Americans in 2020, but heart disease and cancer still dominated the list, and the sedentary lifestyle that contributes to chronic preventable disease can feel inescapable.
Perhaps most insidiously, we seem unable to extract ourselves from a political civil war of mutual hatred, whether or not we actively participate. Those who do debase themselves in what a friend brilliantly termed social idolatry, substituting the exhilaration of resentment for uplifting, ennobling community. Touching grass would also help us venture outside of our bubbles. I have come to believe that a crisis of purpose and meaning is the defining problem of our time, compounded by atomization and isolation. “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary,” Sebastian Junger observes in his essential book, “Tribe.”
Finally, we are choking on our inability to build new physical things. We struggle to build infrastructure, not to mention housing. Cultural shifts may be largely to blame, but there are institutional failures too. NIMBYs regularly weaponize environmental law to kneecap projects that would reduce environmental harm. I hope figuring out housing will help turn the tide. Building more by building more admittedly begs the question, but there are many sound reasons to build more, denser housing.
Dense building uses resources efficiently, starting with land, which is expensive. A duplex costs less than two equivalent detached single-family homes. Homes with shared walls require less energy to heat and cool, and less physical infrastructure for transportation, utilities, etc.
Going a step further, permitting grocery stores, shops, parks, and schools within a residential area would enable residents to drive much less. So would decent sidewalks and cycling infrastructure such as protected lanes and paths, not to mention transit. The resulting neighborhood has many residents close to each other, affordable housing, and easy access to the amenities of daily life. That combination of density is where the magic happens.
Reducing segregation is a fine benefit to start with. Many residential land use restrictions such as single-family zoning have racist origins. Undoing them would make housing more accessible to nonwhite residents.
Less driving means less emissions so long as cars or electricity generation are fossil-fueled. It also means less road noise and safer streets where people actually want to spend time. People do spend more time outside in such neighborhoods, to simply be in the place they live. A note about noise: A neighborhood of medium-density housing would be, based on my own experience, about as quiet as a sprawling, car-dependent suburb. I live in a row of townhomes and have never heard our neighbors through the walls.
More walking and cycling and time outside presumably means less chronic preventable disease, all else equal. With all of these people in close proximity, they are bound to strike up conversations. People will meet and befriend more individuals with different views or backgrounds. There is ample evidence that strong social as well as familial ties help humans live longer. Community provides a sense of meaning. People come to depend on each other. They feel valued as individuals. They become necessary, irreplaceable in others’ lives.
This vision is informed by where I first lived with my wife: Del Ray, Alexandria is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the capital region and so of course the homes are shockingly expensive, despite being old and small. But now I see that may be why they are. Del Ray’s motto is, “Where main street still exists.” That main street, Mount Vernon Avenue, is lined with restaurants, shops, cafes, and pedestrians. It ironically served as a testbed for new road paving techniques about a century ago, in anticipation of the car’s mass adoption. Fortunately, the trial was not overly successful.
In this 2020 U.S. Census map, dark blue indicates a population density of 10,000 or more residents per square mile, while the lighter blue is 5,000 to less than 10,000. The dark blue wedge jutting down from the top is the part of Del Ray I lived in. The portion east of Mount Vernon Avenue is a bit less dense. The dark blue further east by the Potomac River is the even more exclusive Old Town, Alexandria. Density makes both places more, not less, desirable. Other neighborhoods should be permitted to emulate them.
Being a reporter, first on Capitol Hill then investigating the IRS, made me cynical about politics and pragmatic about policy. I have naturally lost a bit of my idealism over the years. Urbanism exhilarates me because it feels utopian but is not. It is all basic economics and common sense. More, denser housing plus walkable amenities will be transformative with essentially no downside, when we win the right to build it.