No space in the city? Only to those with im­mov­able imag­i­na­tions.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSI­NESS - BY EMILY BADGER emily.badger@wash­

Last month, in re­sponse to the news that Detroit’s white pop­u­la­tion is grow­ing for the first time in decades, with the number of res­i­dents down­town surg­ing in par­tic­u­lar, a lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion paused to ask: “Is Detroit big enough for ev­ery­one?”

It was an odd ques­tion, given that the city’s pop­u­la­tion is less than half the size it was in 1950, with tens of thousands of empty lots and hol­low homes at­test­ing to the am­ple el­bow room. If any com­mu­nity in Amer­ica has space — cran­nies to tuck new hous­ing, ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb more ideas and bod­ies — it is Detroit.

Echoes of a sim­i­lar sus­pi­cion to the con­trary, though, are wide­spread in how we talk about the places where we live. The city of San Fran­cisco is “cooked. Done.” There’s no more room in Sil­i­con Val­ley, ei­ther. Brook­lyn is at ca­pac­ity. Bos­ton, too. The nicest parts of North­west Wash­ing­ton long ago reached the limit. Chicago’s cov­eted Lin­coln Park wants fewer peo­ple. Even whole coun­tries now suf­fer from this con­di­tion: Bri­tain just can’t take in any of those refugees be­cause the is­land, at long last, is full.

Built into these ar­gu­ments is a pow­er­ful but slip­pery con­tention: It is pos­si­ble to fill up a place.

But a neigh­bor­hood, no less a con­ti­nent, de­fies the know­able vol­ume of boxes or bot­tles or sta­di­ums. We know when a bath­tub is full, be­cause the wa­ter runs over. Same with a rush-hour bus, when­the bod­ies won’t budge. But a city? A city block? How would you even de­fine such a thing?

“Econ­o­mists re­ject ab­so­lutes like ‘full’ and ‘need,’ ” says Joe Cor­tright, an ur­ban economist. “It’s al­ways about trade­offs and choices.”

Cities, in par­tic­u­lar, are about trade-offs be­tween hec­tic streets and vi­brant economies, be­tween scarce park­ing and neigh­bor­hoods worth trav­el­ing to, be­tween cramped sub­way cars and the mass of hu­man­ity that makes the sub­way pos­si­ble.

And so, from an economist’s point of view, there is no such thing as a full place. Es­pe­cially not in Amer­ica, where our neigh­bor­hoods, as ur­ban plan­ning pro­fes­sor So­nia Hirt puts it, are “as­ton­ish­ingly low den­sity” com­pared with the rest of the in­dus­tri­al­ized world. Maybe your par­tic­u­lar ge­ol­ogy can’t han­dle the foun­da­tion of a mile-high sky­scraper. But, for the most part, we can al­ways make choices to make more room, to build taller and denser, to up­grade schools and re­think roads to let more peo­ple in.

That we don’t isn’t a lim­i­ta­tion of physics. It’s a mat­ter of pol­i­tics dis­guised as physics.

“When peo­ple say a place is ‘full,’ to me it’s short­hand for they’re not will­ing to even en­ter­tain the chal­lenges of what it would mean to re­de­velop the space,” says Ge­orge McCarthy, the pres­i­dent of the Lin­coln In­sti­tute of Land Pol­icy.

“One of the things about be­ing ‘full’ — or say­ing you’re ‘full’ — is the con­clu­sion that the qual­ity of life in the place will never be bet­ter than it is right now,” he says. “That’s what peo­ple are re­ally say­ing. They’re say­ing, ‘Any change you make is go­ing to re­quire a sac­ri­fice of one sort or an­other that we’re not will­ing to make.’ ”

Of course, what’s based on cul­ture and pol­i­tics— not physics — can change. So maybe we can learn to live dif­fer­ently.

“Ev­ery­body that lives in San Fran­cisco thinks that San Fran­cisco is the once-and-al­ways great place,” McCarthy says. “I was in San Fran­cisco in 1971, and it wasn’t that great. It was ac­tu­ally in very bad shape.”

The city was los­ing pop­u­la­tion then, and it took many years to re­cover. Now we think mil­lion-dol­lar mi­cro-apart­ments are the norm.

“But 40 years from now, San Fran­cisco might look like Detroit. And it might look like Detroit be­cause peo­ple have de­cided to stop evolv­ing and adapt­ing,” he says. “And in­stead we move around on the planet in­stead of mak­ing the places that we care about work.”

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