THE BLOG
06/26/2014 11:20 am ET | Updated Aug 26, 2014

The Delights of Urban Density

Crowded American cities are generally healthier than less crowded ones -- usually safer, more interesting, more energetic, more convenient, more fun and more creative. Density is associated with higher rates of innovation and entrepreneurialism. Crowded urban cores spawn clusters of people who increase each other's productivity via cross-fertilization of ideas.

As the late, great sociologist and city watcher William H. Whyte told NBC News in 1987: "What makes a city great? A lot of people pretty close together. Buying, selling, talking, looking, eating." Daily excitement. Reveling in a shared civic experience. "The trouble with most smaller cities is that they don't have enough people out on the sidewalk. What they should be doing is concentrating, concentrating to get that critical mass," Mr. Whyte said. (On this topic, I particularly recommend his book City: Rediscovering the Center.)

So I was happy to read a June 11 Providence Journal story headlined "Providence looks to rewrite zoning to build on a strength: Density."

About time! As other cities have recognized, the suburban paradigm of prioritizing parking lots and rigid zoning rules that severely separate commercial and residential areas doesn't work well for real cities. It doesn't seem to work all that well in the suburbs either, as the increasing number of empty big-box stores there might suggest. Indeed, many suburban towns are trying to recreate their "village centers" of yore. (In the hometown of my boyhood, we'd walk or bike the three-quarters of a mile to such a center for just about everything, from candy to clothes to copies of Mad magazine. Then, big stores were built at a new shopping center near a divided highway on the edge of town with a windswept parking lot and soon there wasn't much you could buy in the village center except overpriced lighthouse paperweights. About the same time (1959) commuter train service to the town was halted, a land-use disaster. Now train service is back and residents lobby for more stores that they can walk to.)

Providence's current zoning laws, like those of many cities, were written in the automobile's glory years, the '50s, when cheap gasoline and the new Interstate Highway System helped fuel the idea that all of life could be connected by a car. Of course, since then, gasoline has become much more expensive and the environmental, sociological and economic costs of car-based sprawl much clearer. That's not to say that the door-to-door convenience of driving in those days with less-crowded roads (and better, nontexting drivers) was not often delightful. The lure of the open road was and is powerful. Kerouac was on to something. But with 310 million Americans now, that road is clogged in much of America.

Proposed new zoning for Providence and some other cities would reduce the parking-space requirements for businesses, which would be encouraged to share required parking spaces among themselves, and smaller businesses wouldn't have to provide any parking spaces. Space would be allocated for bikes. (I realize that the new rules would formalize what has already been happening to some extent.) In a denser city, having fewer parking spaces works because fewer people have cars. They walk more, take the bus, bike and use such services as Zipcars when they need a car to, say, go out of town or to haul stuff. A city that encourages density almost by definition encourages mass transit.

And get rid of most setback rules that in some places bar store and restaurant owners from having their establishments right up against the sidewalk. The closer to the sidewalk a business is, the more it contributes to sidewalk life. Why encourage developers to put parking lots, forlorn at night, in front of sterile office buildings or chain restaurants in downtowns?

As much as possible, make places where residents can live, work and shop by foot, with lots of "third places" that aren't home and aren't workplaces, such as coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores and pubs where loyal customers regularly do business and socialize in familiar and friendly settings. Those amenities are especially popular among young adults (who tend to marry late, if at all, and have fewer kids than their parents) and retirees, who seek proximity to the cultural amenities, doctors and hospitals concentrated in cities. Current and future demographics favor the direction that Providence's planners are heading in. Public policy, however, should be more focused than it is on accelerating these urban-planning changes. The days when most people were content to drive 25 minutes to go grocery shopping are ending.

Providence, a medium-size city (with a metro area of about 1.3 million), has not destroyed so much of its dense urban built environment fabric that it cannot again achieve a thicker, healthier density. It's the sort of density whose attractions draw so many people to put up with the high costs of living in such dense cities as New York, Boston and San Francisco.

This piece was first published in the Providence Journal.

Robert Whitcomb, a Fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy and a partner at Cambridge Management Group, is a former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal and former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune. He may be reached at rwhitcomb51@gmail.com.

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