Brilliantly Smart Growth

posted in Regional planning |

Smart Growth has proven so popular that it is time to talk about the next step, which I call Brilliantly Smart Growth. If housing people in mid-rise, mixed-use developments can measurably reduce their daily miles of driving and carbon footprints, just think what higher densities will do.

The median density of America’s urban areas is less than 2,000 people per square mile, while the average density is 2,700 people per square mile. The densest urban areas have more than 6,000 people per square mile. As the Antiplanner has previously noted, increasing densities by 1,000 people per square mile seems to reduce per capita driving by, at most, 395 miles.

We drive an average of 10,000 per capita, which suggests that densities of around 30,000 people per square mile might eliminate driving. But Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and several cities in New Jersey are that dense and people in those communities still drive, so even higher densities are needed to completely eliminate driving.

The Sierra Club once opined that the “optimal urban density” is 500 households per acre. At an average of 2.4 people per household, this equals 1,200 people per acre or 768,000 people per square mile.

Manhattan, at a mere 60,000 people per square mile, has a long way to go before it reaches smart-growth perfection. Even Hong Kong, the densest urban area in the world, has only 76,300 people per square mile, a mere one-tenth of the “optimal” density.

How could 768,000 people possibly fit in one square mile? Frank Lloyd Wright, who accurately predicted the suburbs with his 1930s Broadacre City, again shows us the way with his 1956 vision of Brilliantly Smart Growth.

Around 1955, someone asked Wright if he could design a skyscraper that was a half-mile high. Why go just a half mile, he said, when you could go all the way? So he proposed the Mile-High Illinois: 528 stories tall, including parking, housing, retail, and offices.

Wright estimated his building would have 18 million square feet of floor space, which he thought would be room enough to house 100,000 people plus all of the office space needed by the entire Illinois state government. He also planned parking for 15,000 cars and 150 helicopters.

The big difficulty with superskyscrapers is finding space for enough elevators to move people to the upper floors. Wright proposed to solve this with five-story elevators: each level of the elevators would serve only every fifth story.

People in 1956, especially those living in skyscrapers, were apparently satisfied with smaller living spaces than we are used to today. One hundred thousand people in 18 million square feet is only 180 square feet per person. Since much of the building was to be for offices and shops, the actual amount of living space per person would be little more than 100 square feet. Even the Soviets did better than that: their Ideal Communist City called for 600 square feet for a family of four.

Let’s be three times as generous as the communists and offer our families a range of housing units that average 1,800 square feet in size. If we devote half of our mile-high skyscraper to housing, we can fit 5,000 apartments or condos. At 2.4 people per unit, we have 12,000 people per skyscraper — a lot less than Wright’s vision, but also a lot more comfortable.

The Mile-High Illinois has a footprint of about 2 acres. If we surround it by 8 acres of open space, we can fit 64 mile highs on every square mile. That is exactly the Sierra Club’s optimal 768,000 people per square mile.

Just think of it! All of the New York urban area, which currently occupies 3,350 square miles, could fit on Manhattan’s 28 square miles with room to spare. Every urban area in the U.S. with more than 12,000 people, which now occupy more than 80,000 square miles, could fit on roughly 250 square miles.

Brilliantly Smart Growth would thus free up at least 80,000 square miles of land for farms, forests, and rural open spaces. (For those who care, 80,000 square miles is less than 2.3 percent of the U.S.’s 3.5 million square miles of land area.) This isn’t even counting the urban open spaces that would make up 80 percent of our urban areas.

Wright’s 15,000 parking spaces can be used for medical centers, shops, or basketball courts, because who needs automobiles if your office, school, and every conceivable kind of shop and indoor recreation area are just an elevator ride away? If you want something real exotic, just walk a mere one-eighth of a mile away to one of your neighboring mile highs and sample their shops and entertainment centers. Although no one would plan it that way, no doubt the mile highs would soon sort themselves into gays, vegans, metrosexuals, and other groups, so each would have a distinct flavor.

If it is a nice day and every single resident of your mile high wants to sun themselves in the 8 acres of open space, each of them will have 29 square feet all to themselves. That offers plenty of room to stretch out in an area slightly larger than a double bed. Except on special occasions, such as the Fourth of July or “Saint” Peter Calthorpe’s birthday, it is unlikely that every single resident will be outside at the same time, so people will usually have much more space (as if they would ever really need it).

Those people who want to travel further than to an adjacent mile high will be able to take a subway or, possibly, aerial monorail line connecting buildings at vertical quarter-mile intervals. And each region of mile highs would be connected to other regions by high-speed rail lines sensitively located on the landscape so as to disturb a minimum of precious open space.

Engineers say that the technology to actually build mile-high skyscrapers wasn’t really available in Frank Lloyd Wright’s time. But soon we will be able to save even more open space with two-, three-, and even four-mile highs!

Smart-growth advocates always say they don’t want to eliminate driving or single-family homes. Yet, given their obsession with reducing driving and saving open space regardless of the cost, Brilliantly Smart Growth’s mile highs are the inevitable extension of any policy designed to reduce driving and protect more open space, especially those policies that fail to ask either the cost or how people actually prefer to live.

One problem is that the term Brilliantly Smart Growth is a real mouthful, so for short let’s just call it BS Growth. And if you think BS Growth is just a lot of BS, then you know what I think of plain old S Growth.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 20th, 2008 at 12:00 am and is filed under Regional planning. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.