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How Dense Can We Be?

Yesterday's post on Density as Efficiency triggered an interesting discussion in the comments, and reader Laurence Aurbach provided some very useful links expanding upon the issue. One link in particular stood out: the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy's online exploration of "Visualizing Density."

While most WorldChanging readers probably recognize that dense development doesn't just mean massive concrete block apartments and congested neighborhoods, those remain typical representations of high-density urban life. The Visualizing Density project displays just how pleasing and appealing high-density neighborhoods can be, and helps to put a recognizable face on somewhat abstract concepts as "12 units per acre." The "Bird's Eye View" section takes a step-by-step approach to explaining different density levels, and steps that planners can take to ensure that the resulting neighborhoods are good places to live. It also explains some of the complexities underlying the measurement of density: where are the boundaries drawn for the representative acre? Do you include parks and waterfronts? How about scattered apartment complexes?

And for those of us still fascinated by SimCity, the site offers an additional treat: a Flash-based neighborhood-design toy. Players can either work to meet specific density design goals, or just "free play" design residential neighborhoods. The layout of the toy is very similar to SimCity, in that you have a flat plane upon which you can put down roads, buildings of different sizes, and parklands; the plane can be spun to view the result from different directions. Surprisingly, it doesn't allow for buildings mixing ground-level commercial and upstairs residential units -- an omission also characteristic of SimCity -- even though the combination is discussed elsewhere in the Visualizing Density site.

Regardless, for those of us wishing to better understand what real-world versions of Bright Green cities can look like, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy website is a welcome resource.

Comments (16)


A properly balanced town has various density housing from rural to dense. From mansion to itty bitty apartment.

Just because your in a dense housing doesnt mean your near to your job or food or anything realy I have seen massive housing blocks put in the the oddest of locals. Also too dense a housing block and its garanteed alot of those people either a dont have jobs or b have em far away because JOBS arnt that dense.

Stefan Jones:

I haven't delved into Paolo Soleri's stuff all that deeply, but from what I have seen and read the whole point of his arcologies is to make dense dwellings humane, environmentally sound, and aesthetically pleasing. Places like Arcosanti are supposed to blend in with the landscape and lend themselves to the creation of a community.

Ironically, the SF world has appropriated and warped the word to mean a vast megastructure that is sealed off from the surrounding environment. The ultimate, or nadir, of this sort of fictional place is the "Todos Santos" of Niven & Pournelle's Oath of Fealty. The giant box is essentially a vertical gated community; a hidey-hole that skittish white Angeleno technocrats can feel safe shopping and living in.

* * *

"I have seen massive housing blocks put in the the oddest of locals."

Yes. High-rise public housing has been used as a dumping ground for people you'd rather not deal with.

I once saw, from an airport bus, Chicago's Cabrini Green blocks. Probably a year or two before they were torn down. My thought on seeing them went something like:

"What the FUCK were they thinking?"

I suspect, if they could have gotten away with it, Chicago's bughers would have put the high-rises on artificial islands a mile offshore.


Its fairly well a given that soon the tech will arrive that sparks the creation of thousands of arcologies of various designs. The main impetus for that will be completely robotic construction cutting costs way down and the first design of an arco like building actauly working. That will likely get from japan within 30 years.

Tim Andonian:

"Its fairly well a given that soon the tech will arrive that sparks the creation of thousands of arcologies of various designs."

I have to disagree with this. It is no matter of technology, but rather humans changing their views about co-interdependence, co-living and an assimilation back into the ecology. We face a problem and seek the answers in the human construct.

Stefan Jones:

What Tim Said.

An "arco" is a dark romantic fijjit from a certain brand of SF. A comfy hidey-hole for paranoid technocrats who've given up on even the idea of a common society.

Great big buildings are a really bad idea because they can't change beyond a certain point. By erecting these edifices you'd be locking in the design of your city at a certain point in time. Relatively small, relatively unintegrated buildings can be easily modified, retrofitted, or outright knocked down when they no longer make sense.


Heh in a big building all you do is clear out the temp walls as none of them are load bearing its easy and then reframe new walls. No roves to build no cooling systems to rebuild no furnace to take out no foundation to take out or pour.

As for tech they need the tech mainly to get the costs down to the point well off but not wealthy people can afford a large enough space in such a place. The main cost being loan payments and labor costs. Its been supposed that once it goes fully robotic not only will a building go up VERY fast it will be very very cheap too.

Stefan Jones:

Wintermane, you are missing my point.

No, actually you're not. You're just not applying something you wrote earlier to this situation:

"Just because your in a dense housing doesnt mean your near to your job or food or anything realy I have seen massive housing blocks put in the the oddest of locals."

It is the very presence of a massive building in such-a-location that can warp the economic and demographic ecosystem of a city.

And even if you can rearrange walls in a large building, you are going to be constrained by the infrastructure routes and outer structure. You can bet there will be the equivalent of zoning and homeowners' covenants.

Put another way: It is putting too many eggs in one basket.

Check out Stewart Brand's talk on cities for more on this:



Oh I fergot to mention I think it also depends on how unpleasnt mother nature gets. The nastier things get the more people will look to monolithic protective structures. Its just a step up from a fort/walled city of olden times. Fear I think will drive people closer together..

Fear will drive us together
Think of me babe whenever
Some rag-headed thug comes to call
Threatening all
I'll get your back when your back's to the wall
Look at the threat and let fear drive us to-ge-ther.

(had to get that out - sorry for any earworms.)

You're a bad, bad man.


Hehehe I had ment fear of natural disasters. I think in 30 years the only way to have a home on the "beach" in florida will be to encase the sucker in steel. Same for Japan. I think alot of seaside communties in 30 years on some coasts will be walled in maybe even monoliths.

Thats why im glad my family moved inland recently. Where we used to live was on a hill but it was surrounded by below sea level land.. not good.

Oh that reminds me has anyone estimated what effect on density growing sea level might have as people are forced to move around and move inland?

Well, wintermane, you've gone a long way toward answering the question.


Heh well I just see monoliths as nothing more then planned communities only in a realy big box. As long as you plan one as a comunity and not as just a big arse housing block there should be enough jobs an places to work inside it to keep the number of in out commutes down to an acceptable level. And just as in the walled cties in europe some of witch STILL stand. You can always build outside the box.

If this mall concept included a rail line from Syracuse and feeders from 'burbs, it would be a lot greener.

If the line included stops at parks along the way he'd really have something.

And since wintermane was talking about NATURAL disasters....

Fear will drive us together
Think of me babe whenever
Some ol' typhoon blows through the town
Knockin' trees down
Storm surges makin' you run for high ground
Pass the sandbags and let fear drive us to-ge-ther.

Defending cities against sea-level rise is going to be big business in coming years. I expect the Dutch will lead the industry, but it's already started -- Venice's plans for giant sea gates being a good example.


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