Matthew Yglesias is a former blogging wunderkind (that was, like, five years ago. Now he’s just a blogger for Slate, albeit a really good one) who has just released an e-book entitled “The Rent is Too Damn High,” a reference to a New York political party of the same name. In an interview with the New York Time’s Economix blog, Yglesias sums up the thesis of his new book. Predictably enough, the thrust of his argument is that the rent is too high: a lack of density in city centers has led to suburban sprawl and its attendant ills, including large-scale migration to the SunBelt. Following in the well-trod footsteps of urbanists before him (most famously, Corbusier; most recently, Edward Glaeser), he argues for more density, which will allow for more green space.
I haven’t read the book, although I’d like to. I’ve only read the interview. That said, here are some preliminary thoughts:
I’m curious to hear how Yglesias addresses historic preservation: he says in the article that many of America’s best-loved neighborhoods couldn’t be built today because of zoning. This is true, but doesn’t necessarily square with his argument for greater density in urban areas. The best-loved urban areas in world are already pretty…well…urban. If you’re talking about densifying suburbs, going from 1 or 2 units per acre to 8 or 9 or – gasp! – even more, I’m all for it. But if you look at cities like Shanghai, you see an argument against rampant densification. Traditional neighborhoods have been obliterated and replaced with dense but soul-less architecture. There is more green space, but less community. The same argument could be made for many cities: Cambridge, MA’s triple-decker architecture is not as dense as it could be, but it is iconic. Ditto New Orleans, Charleston, SC, Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Boston’s Back Bay/South End/Beacon Hill, and many others.
Like Corbusier, Yglesias makes the argument that greater density allows for larger green spaces, which is undeniably true. Corbu’s green spaces were soul-less and boring, which is why they were (thankfully) never built. I would guess, because Yglesias is a guy with lots of common sense, that he is proposing something more akin to a greenbelt or a nature reserve than large swaths of lawn punctuated by apartment blocks. But while I am, on balance, pro-green space, I am also pro-access to green space. What is the best way to reconcile the preservation of wild lands with granting access to those who live in the city? I should note that this is already an issue – while working at a nature reserve, I had a child ask me “are there animals in the woods?” When told “yes,” she started shrieking. Full-on, no holds barred. It was distressing.
Finally, Yglesias talks about the fear that many municipalities have of density. I certainly saw this when I lived in rural Pennsylvania: there is a widespread failure to recognize that you need density somewhere in order to maintain a bucolic feel elsewhere. Attempts to allow a low level of development in order to “preserve rural character” are often doomed to fail. I’m curious to read about how he proposes to solve it. Most small towns are unwilling to partner with other municipalities in their region. While there have been some very successful metro partnerships (Portland & Toronto spring to mind), cooperation has been the exception.
Ball’s in your court, Yglesias!