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