Why ‘Density’ Is a Bad Word

It’s often used to describe how people live in urban spaces. But it shouldn't be.

Science tells us that density equals mass divided by volume. In planning circles, density usually equals the number of homes divided by the amount of land. We aren’t really thinking about the mass of homes -- about how much they weigh -- but you can see how the scientific term is a pretty good stand-in for what we’re measuring.

Still, despite its utility, I can’t think of a worse word than “density” to describe putting more or fewer people in one place. If density were invited to a party, it would be the unsmiling guy in a dark suit, standing in a corner.

For decades now, as our urban regions have evolved, the density debates have been intense. Planners generally want more density because it dovetails with mass transit, is more environmentally friendly and provides a variety of housing types. Neighborhood activists generally want less. Often, the result is an impasse; nothing happens.

Maybe part of the problem is the word. It doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with people, and it’s certainly not something anyone would want more of. There’s also the problem that, when used as an adjective, its meaning is relative. One person’s dense neighborhood is another person’s sprawl.

Because the word is so unappealing, I’ve been searching for a better one. Despite years of thinking about it, I haven’t come up with one yet. “Crowded” comes to mind. But that’s negative. And it’s also relative. What feels crowded to me won’t to someone else. Another term that comes to mind is “community.” If you have more people in one place, you potentially have more community, meaning more people to get to know, marry or play bridge with. (OK, and also hate, fight with or get annoyed by, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

In Minneapolis, a group caught the spirit of this word with its name, Neighbors for More Neighbors. Clever. The group backed a push to allow modestly sized apartment buildings, in this case duplexes and triplexes, in every neighborhood. As is typical, the debate was hugely contentious. Longtime homeowners bristled at potential changes in the character of their neighborhoods. But this time the side wanting more homes won. Late last year, Minneapolis became what is believed to be the first major city in the country to eliminate single-family zoning.

Perhaps it’s a trend. Portland, Ore., long on the vanguard of city planning, is moving forward with what it calls a residential infill project that would allow two-, three- and four-unit apartment buildings -- “fourplexes” -- in most neighborhoods.

What impact would that have on those neighborhoods? Keep in mind that increasing the number of homes in an area does not necessarily mean an increase in footprint or height. Three 900-square-foot apartments take up roughly the same amount of space as one 2,700-square-foot single-family home.

The bigger issue in most places is cars. Three 900-square-foot apartments might mean more of them on the street than just a single 2,700-square-foot home. But collectively, more apartments could bring about neighborhood changes that make it easier to live without so many cars. It’s an interesting tension.

Maybe greater density, like falling in love or the pursuit of happiness, is best pursued indirectly. Campaign for more stores and restaurants, better mass transit and lower heating bills, and then say, oh, by the way, we’re going to let more homes be built.

A developer once famously said that Americans hate density and sprawl, which of course is contradictory. But do we really hate density? We love traveling to Paris, one of the densest places on earth. Maybe we just hate the word.

An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing. He can be reached at amcities@gmail.com or on Twitter at @Amcities.