The Pros of Packed Living

(Photo by Martha Stewart)

(Photo by Martha Stewart)

A Harvard economist tells New Yorkers to get over their growing pains

By Oliver Morrison

Mayor de Blasio says he will allow developers to build higher in exchange for more public housing. What will this mean for New York?  

More people will be able to live in New York and the prices should be moderated. While it is true that there is some added costs to the city, it is also true that the property taxes generated by this should adequately cover that.

What are the problems that density can bring?

The big downsides of density are crime, contagious disease, congestion, and air pollution. I suspect that New York can deal with the crime associated with density at almost any level, given how capable the police department has become. New York is far from dealing with the congestion issues.

What cities have done density well and what cities have not?

Singapore is among the best-run places in the planet. Their handling of congestion is remarkably good because of their use of electronic road pricing means the streets can move relatively smoothly at all different points of time of the day. When it comes to problems, Sao Paolo both has a significant crime problem and a significant congestion problem that are quite severe.

Is there a limit based on current technologies to how dense we can get?

I don’t think New York is very near that limit. It is certainly possible at a certain high-density level that you would make street travel unpleasant. There are times that Fifth Avenue can feel that difficult, but mostly that isn’t residents: it’s mostly commuters, it’s tourists and it’s a very narrow set of blocks. All you have to do is go over to Madison or 6th and you have free pedestrian traffic.

What do you think about the paradox that, as cities become denser, it makes the world greener but people see less greenery in their daily lives?

There is no question in your day-to-day life you’re going to have less open space around you than you will in a typical suburb. But hopefully within an hour or two’s drive you can get to some place that is much wilder and much greener because you’ve saved the massive amount of space used in urban sprawl.

Why do communities like Riverdale keep fighting density if it has all of the benefits you’ve described?

NIMBYism is universal. When we allow building, it’s going to create a modest cost for the existing residents and a very large benefit for the new residents that are moving into the area. The people that currently live there are losing. So it’s not surprising that they oppose it. But it’s very hard to make the city look functional if you’re going to allow each neighborhood veto rights over every project in that neighborhood.

Do the benefits of density mean that we should move everyone from the suburbs into a city?

I don’t think we should push people out of Scarsdale into New York. I think the right answer is you don’t want to have policies like artificially subsidizing highways, artificially subsidizing home ownerships.

 You’ve written that the city’s economy is anchored by the financial industry.  What would happen if the profits in the financial industry fell, and we were left with all of these densely constructed buildings?

The price of housing would fall. The city is going to become more affordable.

How do you think de Blasio will do at promoting density?

I think he may be able to allow a bit more density while making clear the human benefit of it. Part of the lesson of the de Blasio victory is that people felt like Bloomberg wasn’t their mayor. He did a lot on the social welfare front, but as soon as you get on the private jet to Bermuda all that’s gone out the door.  I think the advantage of de Blasio is that he’ll be able to make the case for density not as being a favor to real estate developers but rather as something he’s doing because he actually believes it will help New York.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

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Population Density (per acre) in NYC