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An Underwhelming Attitude Towards Density

Josh Stephens on
Feb 3, 2015

Consider this headline, which accompanied a recent Citylab article on a townhouse development in Echo Park: "In Los Angeles, Density That Doesn't Overwhelm." It doesn't take much to unpack that statement. It implies that density is inherently overwhelming.

 

The Blackbirds development, reviewed by Deborah Snoonian Glenn, consists of 18 townhomes that take advantage of the city's innovative, but underused, Small Lot Ordinance. They're being built in a hillside neighborhood that consists mainly of single-family homes. Blackbirds is a bold move for that neighborhood. But it doesn't follow that density is the problem that Blackbirds' design solves - or that density is a problem in the first place.

 

For Glenn's part, her appraisal of Blackbirds doesn't really echo her headline. She portrays Blackbirds as a neat little development (designed by architect Barbara Bestor) that makes good use of a tight space. Blackbirds' common driveway is designed as a woonerf, which is a street meant to accommodate humans and cars alike. Even then, I'm not sure how exemplary Blackbirds is. While it may use space efficiently, the rendering that accompanies the article makes the design looks apologetic. The structure recedes from the curb and hides behind a row of trees, lest it offend neighbors who want to pretend that they're living in rural Montana.

 

Many people in Los Angeles share this fantasy, what with their front yards and setbacks juxtaposed against traffic jams, diversity, and whatnot. But responsible commentators should know better. I suspect that Glenn does, in fact, know better. She's from New York City. She knows real density, and she probably knows how incredible it can be. But, for this post, she, or her editor, has given in to conventional wisdom.

 

Glenn's post is, in some ways, a conversation between a reasonable article and a provocative headline. Blanket criticism of density arises all the time, and it's almost never valid. I've said so before. Let's explore, yet again, what it would mean for density to be truly "overwhelming."

Can density be aesthetically overwhelming? Sure, if it's designed poorly - or not designed at all. The patchwork canyons of Hong Kong are culturally fascinating but visually assaulting. Same with the shantytowns of the developing world. Arguably worse are the Corbusian superblocks of Beijing, which are ugly, dense, and dull. But many of the most beautiful cities in the world - London, Paris, San Francisco, Amsterdam - are designed to showcase density, with little of the parking lots, setbacks, superfluous vegetation, and other gimmicks that make buildings, especially residences, in the U.S. look like they're terrified of the sidewalk and of each other.

 

Can dense crowds be overwhelming? Sure, in Times Square or the street markets of Kolkata. Densities of human bodies might get uncomfortably, and even morbidly, high in some places at some times, especially in megacities of the developing world. But I can scarcely think of any American streetscape that wouldn't benefit from more foot traffic, more activity, and more features to catch the eye.

Can density overwhelm infrastructure? Of all the concerns about density in Los Angeles, the impact on mobility is the most legitimate. While predictions about the traffic impacts of residential developments are often overblown (especially when, say, a high-density development might enable residents to live closer to their workplaces), there's no doubt that density can equal vehicular congestion. Then again, when density is well designed and well located, traffic can improve, especially when a city is adding to its public transportation system.

 

I'm all for great design, which seems to be the goal of Bestor and of developers LocalConstruct. But I hope that architects and developers don't equate "good" with "unobtrusive." The better a design is, the more of it I'd like to see.

 

Anyone can hide a masterpiece behind a gate and a lawn. Making something both noticeable and inviting poses a greater challenge - and one that is more worthy of an ambitious architect's skills and of a great city's image. And let's not forget about craftsmanship. The buildings that define the great streets of Europe rely on age-old details, like brickwork, masonry, windows, doors, and even flowers and plants, to delight passers-by. The same is true of Charleston, S.C., whose longtime mayor, Joe Reilly, recently rhetorically asked the New York Times, "The question really is, how does a building enhance the city?.... How does it enhance the street?" 

 

Too few people elsewhere in the country are asking Reilly's questions. And yet, they are exactly the ones that planners in center cities should be answering for stakeholders, elected officials, and headline-writers alike. I hope that the next Small Lot development in Los Angeles, and similar developments elsewhere, will dare to be even better, bolder, and more "overwhelming."