Ryan, a good friend of mine and regular contributor to Transit Miami, has finally returned to tackle one of the greatest fears of many Miami neighborhoods: Density. This inherent fear towards density (particularly in those communities along US-1) has led many of these municipalities to lower the maximum allowable density, further solidifying sprawl and preventing city centers from ever evolving properly. Decreased density along US-1 in particular will lead to further growth west of the UDB as well as further underutilization of the maximum potential of metrorail. We need to embrace density key areas, while preserving the identity of our communities in other parts of the city…

I must say, I am so tired of listening to people in Miami-Dade County talk about density as if it is the devil reincarnated. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are concerned that density in or around their neighborhood will somehow lower their quality of life, perhaps by increasing traffic, “overcrowding”, or blocked views. Or, many others fear density because they are afraid of the lifestyle changes that are associated with density (i.e. a less car-dependent lifestyle, less suburban lifestyle, etc.). Perhaps more unfortunately, I think many of the “keep density downtown” advocates are either xenophobic, delusional, or both, sincerely wishing they didn’t live in a major, diverse city like Miami. Never fear - with this post I’ll be briefly pointing out why as citizens of Miami, we should embrace quality density as a friend, not an enemy.

First of all, density is necessary to combat our affordable housing crisis. How is this the case, you ask? Well, density allows developers to allocate a share of units in new buildings/townhouses to people and families lying within middle class and working class income brackets. A form of this policy is already being used by the County, which provides a density bonus to developers who allocate a portion of their units for affordable housing. Regrettably, the potential of such policy thus far has not yielded the intended results, and it appears that a mandate allocating a given percent of EVERY new multi-unit residential building to affordable housing would be the best way to attack the affordable housing crisis and create more socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods (an opportunity squandered recently by the County.) It is up to us citizens to put the pressure on planners and officials to enforce the density bonuses and develop better affordable housing policy instead of continuing to allow most new developments to be of the luxury nature. Believe me; this policy has been very successful in cities throughout North America, Europe, and Australia.

Additionally, by creating more compact communities, density is the precursor to upgrading mass transit. Possibly the most popular scapegoat for local anti-transit advocates around is that “Miami is too spread out for transit to ever work well here” (also another myth.) Regardless, more compact communities will increase the feasibility of transit in many areas, which would eventually lead to enhanced mobility and even increased property values.

Density is also one of the answers to global warming and our oil crises. Miami’s car-dependent culture is definitely not sustainable in the long term. NASA scientist, and perhaps the most renowned researcher on global warming in the world, James Hansen, has proclaimed that “man has just 10 years to reduce greenhouse gases before global warming reaches a tipping point and becomes unstoppable….” Here’s a stat; with only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes 26% of global energy. When you consider that of the 20 million barrels of oil used per day in America, 40% is used by passenger vehicles, we have a problem. Frankly, we are way behind when it comes to instituting the necessary land use changes and sound urban planning practices that result in lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Much of Europe and Japan are light years ahead when it comes to building sustainable cities, which definitely puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Moreover, oil production has peaked, meaning from now on production will begin to decline while prices will steadily rise. When it comes to economic competitiveness, this reality puts auto-centric cities, states, and countries at a marked disadvantage. The reality is, if we don’t begin to acclimate ourselves to lifestyles that don’t revolve around cars, we’ll be faced with very abrupt, painful changes in the next few decades. Also, when we begin to consider where much of the remaining oil reserves are located (Middle East, Venezuela, etc.), we need to ask ourselves, do we really want to be held economically hostage to unstable countries that don’t particularly care for us?

Another very important issue I want to bring up is the link between compact inner city development and urban fringe development. Growth estimates in Miami-Dade County (currently eighth most populous county in America) project an increase of approximately 600,000 people by 2025, totaling over 3,000,000 residents. The reality is there is no slowing down the population growth in the Greater Miami area, which leaves us with two choices: embrace density and compact communities within the urban growth boundary to help accommodate population growth, or continue sprawling development along the urban fringe, further threatening the Everglades, agricultural land, and the entire metropolitan region’s water supply.

Density even makes our neighborhoods safer. Compact, mixed-use communities put more eyes on our streets. Consequently, this will generally make our streets safer as criminals need be much bolder to commit crimes in a public space where people are watching. It’s a lot scarier walking down poorly lit, deserted streets flanked by parking and building setbacks than it is walking down well-traveled sidewalks on well designed streets.

Density even has a positive impact on public health. Compact communities, as a compliment of density, promote more physical activity within the community, which has the effect of combating obesity and lessening stress. Dense, mixed-use communities in which amenities are typically within walking or biking distance could lead to a dramatic decrease in necessary car trips per person, which could save you a lot of money, too. On a related note, according to renowned community activist Robert Putnam in his seminal book on social capital, Bowling Alone, “every 10 minutes of commute time equates to 10% less participation in the local community”, thus exhibiting the deleterious effect low-density, car-dependent development has on social capital.

In leaving, I should mention that it is important that we advocate for quality density, which is often overlooked because of absolutist fights between developers and NIMBYs. Good urban design is the key to a communities and cities realizing the full potential of density. Subsequent posts will focus on some simple areas of urban design to look for when examining the effect a building will have on its surroundings.

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Related posts:

  1. Studies Favor Density Along US-1
  2. Jonesing For Quality Density
  3. Thursday Quote: Density
  4. A step in the right direction
  5. Myth Busted: Streetcar Infrastructure is Not Designed to Handle Hurricanes
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