The urban myth: Are denser areas more beneficial to their inhabitants?

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Current opinion is that dense development, like in Charlottesville's downtown area, is likely more resource-efficient than sprawl. Photo: Matteus Frankovich/Skyclad Aerial Current opinion is that dense development, like in Charlottesville’s downtown area, is likely more resource-efficient than sprawl. Photo: Matteus Frankovich/Skyclad Aerial

The recent arrival of winter weather in Charlottesville has brought interruptions to school, work and business, particularly on the outskirts of town. The snow storm was a reminder that it generally takes longer for snowplows to clear rural backroads and neighborhood streets than it does in the town center, where everything is more concentrated. This raises several questions about the benefits and detriments of density—do people belong in cities? What does it mean to create space for people? What do they need in their immediate environs, and what can be provided from urban peripheries?

When it comes to receiving public services like snowplowing, people in urban areas have a clear advantage over those who live in rural areas. In fact, the concentration of businesses, consumer markets and tax bases in cities gives urban dwellers an advantage in access to all kinds of goods and services, including health care, well-stocked and well-staffed public institutions and responsible waste management. These advantages, as well as the social advantages of greater professional opportunities and cultural amenities, have caused a global trend of urbanization—people moving to denser areas.

Whereas environmentalists have historically regarded cities as unsustainable and unhealthy (think the Great Smog of London), there is now an overwhelming consensus that dense development is probably more resource-efficient than sprawl and may even have the potential to function with more ecological integrity. The problem is that the more people choose to live in cities, the more need there is for either urban production of goods and waste management or dependency on the cities’ neighboring areas to provide these necessities.

Many urban designers have been tackling air quality, storm water management, nutrient recycling and urban farming, trying to meet these needs within cities, but very often there is too much red tape or too great an expense involved in retrofitting high-density areas, and the majority of the burden still falls on rural outskirts. Driving into New York City, one of the nation’s leaders in urban sustainability, there is a persistent stench of waste being dumped into New Jersey. This environmental injustice also works in the opposite direction, where many Americans who live amongst farmland ironically require government aid to buy fresh vegetables because so much of those grown must be sold into urban areas through a system that rewards mass production.

So, returning to the question of whether urban density is good or bad, the more important point is that the attractive ease of access to goods and services within cities often comes at the expense of those in rural areas and maybe, in addition to the brilliant work in urban design and sustainability that has already begun, we can also work on strategies to improve rural life through design. The question of “What does it mean to create space for people?” should refer to all people and not only those in cities, and if urban centers are more resource-efficient than sprawl, then perhaps this idea can be translated to the development of thriving rural towns.

Lindsey Luria is pursuing a master of landscape architecture degree and certificate of historic preservation at UVA’s School of Architecture.

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