Jane Jacobs got it wrong on density, says Harvard economist

Post by Mike Klassen in


Jacobs: note the tower tucked behind the house – it probably pays for a local amenity

Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser blogs at the NY Times website, and he's written what amounts to blasphemy in some planning circles. He says that legendary urbanist Jane Jacobs – who recently topped a list of urban thinkers – was flat out wrong on the subject of density in our cities. Why should you care? Well, if you've ever stopped to wonder whether you, or your kids or grandkids will ever be able to purchase a home in Vancouver, it might be worth considering how we got here.

There's no question that the affordability of housing is becoming one of key issues of living in Metro Vancouver. There are many expensive cities in the world, but few are as out of whack in relation to average income and the cost of housing than here. Basic economics tells you that our low supply and high demand for housing has prices spiking well beyond the 100%-plus increases seen in the past decade. 

In his article titled Taller Buildings, Cheaper Homes, Glaeser credits Jacobs as a woman of many accomplishments:

Jane Jacobs is one of history’s greatest urban thinkers. In most areas, Jacobs was a peerless analyst of urban life. She understood the virtues of busy neighborhoods, the economic opportunity that comes from urban innovation and the value of small firms and industrial diversity...But she wasn’t always right.

What Glaeser points out is that the resistance to higher density development – a trend that caught on like a virus in the 1970s – led to housing scarcity and therefore significantly higher prices. Jacobs' ideas heavily influenced the mandates of City governments beginning in the 1970s. It's said (and a senior City engineer confirmed this to me) that there wasn't a single residential highrise built within Vancouver city limits between the early '70s to the end of the following decade!

It's no wonder we saw an explosion in the cost of real estate after Expo 86 – there simply wasn't enough of it to meet demand from baby boomers moving into the market. If you need a symptom of sprawl and high housing costs in Vancouver today, ask yourself what more housing choice could have done to mitigate this over the past 25 years.

Glaeser continues...

Jacobs feared high densities because she thought that they would lead to too little diversity, but there are good reasons to think that she get things backward. Restricting new construction and keeping buildings artificially low means that housing supply cannot satisfy demand. The result is high prices and cities that are increasingly affordable only to the prosperous.

Glaeser also cites an interesting paper published in 2004 that argues that regulations suppressing development are among the root causes of the high cost of housing in Manhattan. Further he adds:

Restricting supply led to higher prices and a city with space only for the rich. In the 1950s and 1960s, middle-income people, like Jane Jacobs and my parents, could afford Manhattan.  Equivalent families today can’t afford the city, and that’s a pity. By contrast, Chicago, with its longstanding pro-construction ethos, remains far more affordable even in prime locations.

Think of Vancouver city council's recent rush to limit a number of skyscrapers in the downtown core as an example where policy decisions can lock us into inflated housing costs.

Of course there is the thorny issue of where exactly do you put density, given that it's about as politically salable as a plague of locusts no matter where you go. Speaking to an acquaintance from Ottawa last week, he complained that any talk of density in that city is toxic. The City of Vancouver began a debate about density under Sam Sullivan's term of government that resulted in five nights of public hearings (half expressing support, the other half raising concerns), and endless skepticism from the Vision Vancouver opposition (who eventually voted unanimously for the EcoDensity Charter).

Now that the shoe is on the other foot and Vision is governing, look what is happening with Vision's STIR program in the West End. The appearance of an arrogant government ramming density into a community has resulted in an outbreak of grassroots opposition. It would have helped Vision Vancouver greatly to have the leadership within their ranks who could sell the plan before fasttracking it, but as we have seen to date Mayor Robertson is not someone who likes to get his hands dirty.

Of course, most people will vigorously defend their high-carbon lifestyles. During a recent visit out to Langley I spoke to a resident who opposed that any of the ten lanes on the new Port Mann bridge be used for anything other than car commuters. And the other day Province columnist Jon Ferry argued that BC's Agricultural Land Reserve was the cause of high housing costs.

Ferry's column titled ALR helps keep Vancouver land prices sky high is based upon a Fraser Institute study telling us that we have too much land left undeveloped or set aside for farming. On the contrary, says a BCBusiness magazine interview with local farmer Jack Bates, who points out that we're continually losing good land to developments.

“When the horse farm goes, you can still farm it,” Bates muses. “The old saying is that blacktop is the last crop; once it’s paved over, nobody’s farming it.”

Bates points to the numerous zoning battles that have seen Delta lose close to 400 hectares of farmland to development in recent years...
It’s a familiar refrain across the Lower Mainland: the 215-hectare Southlands property in Tsawwassen ceded to developers; 51 hectares of prime riverfront land in Vancouver dedicated to the East Fraserlands development; the 55-hectare Garden City Lands recently bought by the City of Richmond.

We regulary receive emails from opponents of densification, and people who see planning for denser communities as an affront to their way of life. I'm not sure if they realize that it is our low energy costs that permits the suburbs to have a very large carbon footprint.

To make his point Edward Glaeser dispenses with another sacred cow – the revered Dr. Suess! In his essay titled The Lorax Was Wrong: Skyscrapers Are Green, he says:

In almost every metropolitan area, we found the central city residents emitted less carbon than the suburban counterparts. In New York and San Francisco, the average urban family emits more than two tons less carbon annually because it drives less. In Nashville, the city-suburb carbon gap due to driving is more than three tons. After all, density is the defining characteristic of cities. All that closeness means that people need to travel shorter distances, and that shows up clearly in the data...

The policy prescription that follows from this is that environmentalists should be championing the growth of more and taller skyscrapers. Every new crane in New York City means less low-density development. The environmental ideal should be an apartment in downtown San Francisco, not a ranch in Marin County.

For those who think that density is really rejected by the public, then you have to wonder why there was a long line-up last weekend to see Vancouver's first laneway house. Clearly there are many out there who think having more of us per acre could be beneficial to us all.

Ideas like Glaeser's you don't hear every day, which is why they bear repeating. There are not many environmental organizations who are driving these points home, nor are their many elected officials who have the intestinal fortitude to withstand anti-density public backlash. But as the cost of energy and the impact of greenhouse gases on our environment grows, I won't be surprised if many begin to ask why we are taking so long to embrace the views an irreverent economist like Edward L. Glaeser.


Edward L. Glaeser obviously skimmed Jacobs rather than reading her. The densities she considers optimum are far higher than those of most downtown neighbourhoods in Canadian cities, so Glaeser's argument supports hers rather than opposing it.

The only negative thing she had to say about high densities was that if they became too high, they could crowd out diversity. If a neighbourhood was completely filled with highrise apartment buildings, there would be no corner stores or other things that could give people a reason to be on the street and street life would die. An example of this is St James Town in Toronto. Vancouver's West End downtown is certainly not an example, even though it has lots of highrises. The same with St. Lawrence Neighbourhood in Toronto, which has lots of highrises and very high densities. Jacobs wrote an article praising it.

I suggest that Professor Glaeser read through the reading assignments for my second-year course in city politics. They're listed on my blog.

Christopher Leo, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Politics,
University of Winnipeg,
Winnipeg R3B 2E9.

Adjunct Professor,
Department of City Planning,
University of Manitoba.

Research-based blog: http://blog.uwinnipeg.ca/ChristopherLeo/

Why is so much of this argument always focused on the lack of affordable housing and the balance between density and community? Much more attention should be paid by our elected officials, as well as the business community and general public, to increasing average incomes in Vancouver. Recent studies have suggested (http://www.policyalternatives.ca/newsroom/news-releases/2010-living-wage-shows-real-costs-raising-family-metro-vancouver) that $18.17 is the minimum wage for a family to live in Vancouver. I believe that to achieve this that increases in average salaries will have to come from more competition in the employment market and, perhaps more importantly, from a larger number of high paying positions. Trickle down economics may not work on a national scale, but within a local market that money largely stays within the community. Robertson's recent jaunts to New York and London to court green corporations to move to Vancouver have been a joke. Vancouver will attract more talent by providing higher salaries and give individuals a feeling that raising a family within the city limits is at least a possibility.

It's strange and ironic that you never hear anyone discussing housing costs in Vancouver in relation to what you're getting for your money.

i.e. EXACTLY HOW NICE A HOUSE ARE YOU GETTING FOR YOUR MONEY? (Remember, kids, these are the most expensive houses in the country)

Forget the fact that houses in Vancouver are selling for $1.2 million. They're dumps. The walls are made of stucco, for God's sake! In many cases they're very small, dingy and in severe need of repairs. Even though they are not as well built as other houses in the country, they cost twice as much.

Homeowners in Vancouver are so on the hook paying for their mortgage, they can't even afford to fix them up; go ahead and try to afford home and yard renovations when the cost of your house is 14 times your salary!

About half of the 9 million homeowners in this country have a mortgage. A recent study found that around half a million of them would have trouble making payments if the rates went up to 5.25%. Ouch. Meanwhile, probably the main driver for new sales in Vancouver are people trying to get in before the HST starts in July.

So much for the history of housing choices in Vancouver. Expect a real estate drop of 50% or more in the next decade. You won't be able to give your stucco shack away.

Vancouver has a financial wake-up call coming. A big, big financial wake up call.

"...increases in average salaries will have to come from more competition in the employment market..."

The employment market is not based on competition. Migrant worker programs where foreign workers are brought in and paid below our alleged minimum wage destroy any chance for competition. If farmers were forced to only use citizens of the country they operate in for labour, wages would skyrocket because they wouldn't be able to find enough people to do intense physical labour for $5 to $8/hour. Then again, if that happened and farmers were paying $18/hour, the price of food would double.

It's complicated and should be a publicly debated issue. Unfortunately, anyone critical of immigration laws these days is labeled as protectionist and/or racist, so it'll likely never improve. People will forever continue running around in circles fuming about low wages, not understanding why, and attacking the people who try to explain it. Just another cost of the rabid progressive "no one is illegal/no borders" movement.

Christopher is correct. JJ advocated a better, richer, safer urban life. There are many ways to achieve that & Vancouver has successfully experimented with a number of those models from 1973 until 2008. That's one of the reasons we enjoy the quality of life we do today & why our livable City has been widely lauded.

Density is only one part of the complex equation of city-making. Land costs are another. But, increasing density does not reduce the cost of, in this discussion, housing. Using Mr. Glaeser's words, Mr. Glaeser has "got[en] things backwards". What actually happens is that increasing density increases pre-development land values which in turn increases the market cost of the residential dwelling. In theory if there was sufficient surplus of supply the costs would go down. But, that doesn't happen. Instead, developers stop developing.

In addition, Vancouver & New York are different from Chicago & Calgary or Winnipeg. Because of what & where they are & what they've both become as global cities, there is an endless, it seems, supply of people wanting to live, part time @ least, in both. Building 31 or 51 storey towers instead of 18 or 21 storey will simply lower the quality of life in Vancouver until we become another Hong Kong @ which time perhaps the City will not be quite so attractive so people will not come here which will achieve Mr. Glaeser's objective: the cost of housing will go down. But, @ that point of degeneration & devaluation, who wants it, so it goes further down, & so on.

Economists study economics. Planners, architects & even some politicians study cities & built forms of development. In both cases, hopefully, the astute student can learn what has worked & what has not. I will not comment on economics other than above, & those opinions are based on more than 40 years of experience working with developers & on occasion being one. But, I can comment on what makes a good, safe, diverse, comfortable city.

During the 50s & 60s the urban development models which had evolved during the previous 50 years were implemented. Like Mr. Glaeser's thesis, they were to simplistic. Many failed dismally creating huge social breakdowns, increased crime & destroyed urban economies. Detroit is a city scale example. The much lauded tenement blocks in St. Louis which were blown up 20 years after being built, as well as a similar massive, simplistic, high density, affordable [subsidized] housing in Sheffield, UK are built form examples.

Density in itself does not create a vibrant, healthy, nor even a sustainable city. If it did we'd all be living on the point of the same pin. On the other hand, most North American cities are to dispersed to achieve those qualities. In Vancouver we have been increasing the built density from the late 50s to the present. The 50s & 60s Vancouver efforts were found to be also to simplistic. In the 70s the 'Vancouverisms' planning process was developed & until 2008, applied. It included some minor reductions in density but, overall Vancouver has densified quite handsomely. Many, many further opportunities remain in Vancouver to increase density while retaining Vancouver's now famous livability &. they don't generally include across the board density increases.

There were many 'higher density' buildings built in the 70s - False Creek South has 15 or 20 buildings alone, they just weren't simplistic point blocks. We deliberately keep the height down when planning FC south most importantly to preserve the views from Fairview Slopes & West Broadway, to not shadow False Creek & to not create a canyon effect in False Creek. In other words, create a livable City. We were also building subsidized, affordable Coops, Assisted Rental Plan & Multiple Residential Unit Building mostly mid rise projects throughout Vancouver. I designed many. With no disrespect to your "City engineer" source, the economics for those financing methods didn't generally work for high rises in that environment.

Michael, Your kids better start like all the rest of us & get a bachelor or 1 bed & start climbing the real estate ladder. They might be lucky enough to inherit your digs & live there or score big & buy something else. Maybe they won't be able to afford Vancouver. After all isn't economics a lot about supply & demand? Mr. Glaeser's personal research of growing up on the +/-20th floor of a New York high rise was probably a result of necessity not choice. In Metro Vancouver families do still have a choice & they generally chose a cheaper house in the burbs but, more & more, not always.

Vancouver has been on an evolving course to achieve a sustainable, low carbon footprint, as well as a high quality of urban life since the 1970s. The 2 are not mutually exclusive. If done intelligently & creatively they will continue to be one & the same. However, Vision Vancouver's present course is taking us back the 50s. Any apple pie left Mom? Over the past few years politicians have focused on achieving results @ the expensive of process. That process includes engaging stake holders in a genuine 2 way dialogue.

I agree with the above poster - you're really straw-manning Jane Jacob's positions.

If Jane Jacobs were alive today and visited Vancouver, she would say that the West End is a great example of a high-density neighborhood, that Yaletown and Coal Harbor are poor examples (to big and alienating), and that the rest of Vancouver is terribly low-density and suburban. Which are my sentiments exactly.

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