The Case for Density

September 2017
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

In this issue, J.B. Wogan gives thoughtful consideration to an idea that most people accept uncritically in discussions of cities: that population growth equals success. As Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan put it to The Wall Street Journal shortly after taking office three years ago, “The single standard a mayor should be defined on is whether the population of the city is going up or going down.” The issue, as Wogan shows, is actually much more complicated than that.

For one thing, even if a city’s residents do not directly benefit from a growing population, there are others -- powerful others -- who do. In a 1976 article in The American Journal of Sociology, Harvey Molotch added a new phrase to the urban lexicon: the growth machine. Molotch defined this entity as one that is made up of the real estate industry, commercial developers, banks, utilities, retailers and others who work to elect and lobby public officials who will make policy decisions that increase a city’s population. They do this in an attempt to increase what Molotch called the “exchange value” of property -- its economic or market worth. Residents, on the other hand, are often more interested in the “use value” of their property -- its worth as a place to live. They may oppose actions that increase the exchange value out of fear that higher property taxes will drive them out of neighborhoods to which they have emotional and familial attachments.

This tension can be seen playing itself out in lots of political spats within cities. The battles are often characterized as the neighborhood activists versus the downtown interests, and the outcomes usually favor the latter. After all, the growth machine has deep pockets to hire lobbyists, lawyers and consultants whose job it is to promote their agendas.

It seems to me that the best measure of a city’s success, and perhaps a way to reconcile some of these tensions, is to focus not on population growth, but instead on a kind of growth. City leaders should pay more attention to the use value, and, in doing so, should pursue population density, which provides the concentration of resources necessary to improve urban amenities and therefore quality of life. Density enhances sustainability, limits sprawl, makes transit more efficient, increases access to jobs and reduces social isolation, among other benefits.

As I once told a radio talk show host, “The future belongs to the dense.” He had a lot of fun with that, but the case for density is a strong one that even the growth machine ought to be able to get behind.