More Than Climate Change: The Economic, Political, and Moral Dimensions of Density

What are the values that support living in the city? What, besides the many environmental reasons, makes density something we need to press for whenever we can? Is the only reason density advocates urge more people in a smaller space because of climate change? The overwhelming quantitative facts supporting dense cities as being more sustainable should be enough, but even so, there are other important principles the support density.

For me, the discussion of whether density and cities are better for water and air quality, for energy efficiency, and for reducing carbon emissions was over a long time ago. I’m not the only one. That’s why, these days, in Seattle, everyone is for density. You’ll read it over and over again in comment sections all over town. “I support density, just not that kind of density.”

Opponents of change and growth will always preface their argument against change by affirming they whole-heartedly support change itself, and then go on to criticize a specific change as economically unfair, infringing on their rights, or that it is somehow immoral.

Why go on and on arguing about the environmental benefits of growth with people who already claim they agree? How do we shift the discussion to the economic, social, and moral benefits of density over sprawl and NIMBYism? On a recent beach retreat I tried to put together my thoughts on these questions. Density advocates, myself included, are just repeating the same things over and over. It’s time for something new.

The roots of the problem: Sometimes data is not enough.

I’ve written three essays take a step in that direction. The first essay offers a view of land use economics that some might call laissez faire or even Hayekian. We need to rethink our tendency, in Seattle anyway, to always try to solve problems with more rules and process.

The second essay is an effort to look at why we need to wrest control of the debate about land use away from people who abuse and misunderstand the idea of “rights.” We are a country deeply soaked in Natural Rights language, but the idea that we have certain rights has become corrupted and confounded so that now our daily conveniences and comforts are wrongly associated with basic rights. We need to shift our thinking away from American individualism and toward an American communitarianism.

The third essay attempts to give density a moral footing. I am not averse to saying that urban living is better if not the best way to live. I might be wrong and there are other points of view. But we ought to at least try to make the argument that cities afford far more opportunities to live moral lives than any other arrangement by exposing us to the adversity we find in other people in the same way frontier living exposed the first pioneers to the adversity of the natural world.

Lastly, and in conclusion, I revisit some practical solutions that I have offered before. I plan to post these periodically over the next week or so.

Many will find these essays discursive and boring. Others will find contradictions between what appears to be Christian Socialism on the one hand and Hayekian individualism on the other. Perhaps my thinking is muddled. Or maybe our frameworks for looking at problems related to land use need a reset.

Some other readers will find a conflict with my support of the profit motive fulfilling the public good and my interest in locating power in the community, government, and faith over the supposed rights of the individual. I’ll admit that I am still working through the synthesis of my embrace of government mandates and, at the same time, the idea of spontaneous order created when people are allowed to pursue their selfish interests.

Regardless of how that all turns out, my hope is to get Urbanists and supporters of growth, change, and density talking not just about the numbers and data but also about the basic principles the are the foundation of why we support what we do.

Image of the city: Bellevue at dusk.

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7 Responses to More Than Climate Change: The Economic, Political, and Moral Dimensions of Density

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