More Density — With Nature — Means a Healthy Future

A vision for reshaping the city with more density and open space

Urbanist Article July 1, 1999

The Vision of Shifting "Landustructure"

I have a new slogan. You have all heard Newton's Second Law of Motion in high school physics: "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." The following is Richard's first law of ecological urban restructuring: "for every infill there must be an equal and opposite unfill." When we stuff new development into one area, either in the brown fields sense or in the sense of replacing small buildings with larger ones, we should un-develop an even larger area of land for nature, and some for agriculture too. If we can build the pedestrian city (and we can if we decide to) then there is plenty of land out there needlessly covered with low-density development. Open it up! And very consciously notice that something coordinated is happening here, the sum total of which could be called a "density shift," but in terms I prefer, the rebuilding of the city on ecological principles.

Here's the methodology: identify the centers of highest density and add more density – and equally as important, more diversity of land uses. I use the term "landustructure" for land-use/infrastructure, which, if you can imagine this, maps and sections the city in three-dimensions, putting land-use planning and architecture together. It's the anatomy of the city and should be visualized as such like a living organism or living sculptural object of incredibly complex parts. It needs a single word so I offer "landustructure." In the dense and diverse landustructure of the healthy city's, we can create almost immediate accessibility to nature just a few short walkable or bikable blocks away. Transit would then work extremely efficiently too, whisking people from one center to another without dissipating itself out over great flat distances.

Even though San Francisco is relatively dense already, once centers are identified for yet more density in architectural modes I'll describe shortly, the areas farthest from those center can be prioritized for restoration of nature, creating a counterpoint of culture and nature that could enrich the city as the bay already does, but take it to the level of a high art in city-building and nature-restoring. Here we would build not only the "sculpture" but the landscape in which it stands (and inviting in swarms of people and natural animals and plants). Over the decades, major city centers and neighborhood centers would strengthen and take to the air while children would roam over expanding fields and play in formerly closed creeks opening up, one block here, another over their. The suburbs too could find their centers and restore their once-covered agricultural and natural treasures. They could still send perhaps a more modest invasion of tourists to San Francisco and other exciting destinations, but they would have their own smaller scale urban virtues as well.

Time of Opportunity

Presently we are being treated to a litany of attacks on sprawl, from the speeches of the Vice President on down to the complaint of the shopper stuck in a traffic jam on his or her way to buy the legendary bottle of milk. It's about time. Current wisdom on the subject is pretty good, and based, as I say, on those places that successfully resisted wholesale restructuring of cities for cars. Recognizing that we tend to appreciate something of nature and agricultural landscapes, greenbelts have been tightened recently. Recognizing that transit connecting higher density centers saves time, energy and money and supports real face to face community in neighborhood centers, citizens have also recently encouraged and approved a number of urban rail lines and higher density, pedestrian oriented developments in city, neighborhood and suburban centers. This has happened around the country, in Europe and in some other enlightened parts of the world, notably in eco-design leader Curitiba, Brazil. Recognizing the many values of face to face community (security, identity, exchange of a particularly rich and sensitive nature, cultural and social pleasures, etc.), pedestrian areas are coming more and more into favor even though sprawl continues hurtling into farm and natural lands world wide.

But the movement has just begun and the next steps are more than a little interesting. As many of us are now declaring that sprawl has to stop, we are poised on the edge of actually rolling it back, opening up nature and agricultural lands while beginning to build the city based on the human measure and ecological principles.

We now have models for actually removing buildings and other development (walls, sidewalks, driveways, creek culverts etc.) and sending the rights to develop somewhere else. This type of transaction, called a Transfer of Development Rights (or TDR) is usually used to sell the rights to future development, then leave the land or buildings alone that might be otherwise further developed. Those rights are then exercised elsewhere in town where whoever bought the development rights is allowed to build larger and make more money than would otherwise be possible according to the zoning code. In South Lake Tahoe, a precedent has been set for actually removing buildings and sending the development rights elsewhere. Sixty houses have thus been demolished and removed from ecologically sensitive areas there, replaced by more development outside the ecologically restored areas. This model could be applied to existing cities, not just rural areas like the fringe of Lake Tahoe.

The High Density Centers

In fact, the idea was brought before the Berkeley City Council recently by a group of almost everyone you could imagine but car dealers and gas station owners. There were champions of creek restoration, community gardening, low cost housing, transit, bicycles, elderly, youth, disabled, biodiversity, climate stability and even some business people and a downtown developer. In addition to wanting density shifted and magnified toward downtown and other centers, the group was proposing density trades for ecological features in buildings as well as TDRs. For every unit removed, more – say a ratio one to two, three or four – was proposed to be added to the density and diversity of the future walkable centers.

Now think European densities, but think again. Add solar oriented architecture and technology, some American wildness and a new concern for ecological restoration and design. In pedestrian cities and neighborhood centers FAR could be dispensed with entirely. The concept that we need to step buildings back farther and farther the higher they go is based on the assumption that the car will reign on the streets forever. But if people take back the streets it is a radically different world illuminating a different set of assumptions and guidelines. The American truism is that we want lots of sun on our streets. Yet some of the most loved streets in the world are in shadows almost all day and they are invariably pedestrian streets. In fact, streets, if transformed to pedestrian, can be made narrower by creating colonnades over the sidewalks with new structure built above as in Venice, Italy (and Venice, California for that matter). Streets can be partially or completely covered, as they are in many places in Europe, and skylights can throw beams of light down into quite, sometimes reverential, sometimes bustling interiors for people. Think gallerias and grand bazaars like Istanbul's, as well as cathedrals.

Bridges can link buildings on several levels turning high density into a kind of jungle gym for adults. I am aware of hundreds of such bridges, many of them in San Francisco, though many people fail to notice they exist at all and scoff when I report in my slide lectures that they are part of the pedestrian wave of the future. Buildings can be bridges, as many are in Europe, and in India and Nepal where I recently traveled. There are several on the University of California Campus at Berkeley. The tallest building at the City Hall in Palermo, Italy is a bridge over a busy street. Many fascinating environments become possible when you begin to think thoroughly pedestrian. Why not rooftop and terrace gardens with public access, around restaurants and promenades? Whole parks, if smaller ones, could be imagined and built up there. In India and Nepal there is a whole "rooftop culture." People dine, work, play, gossip, shout from rooftop to rooftop, hang out the laundry and prayer flags, and prop up the solar hot water heaters and fresh water tanks for the buildings below. On taller buildings rooftop gardens and gathering places for people can be protected by wind screens. People like views and taller buildings give us a chance to enjoy those views. Taller buildings, if attractive, become great views in their own right.

Then there is the ecological angle of the high density areas themselves, not just the ecological benefit of restored areas that send the rights to develop toward the higher density centers. Buildings can be built with largely recycled materials. About 75% of all steel is recycled at this point in history and whole lumber yards like Eco Timber in Berkeley are now providing wood that is "sustainably harvested," that is, with very little damage to the soils and life systems of the area in which the harvesting of the wood takes place. Solar greenhouses can be built into larger buildings and natural ventilation systems arranged and insulation provided so very little energy is consumed for heating and cooling larger buildings.

But even more important than considerations of buildings taken one at a time is the relationship of buildings to one another. The adjacent buildings might be connected by bridges, and designed in relation to public plazas, pedestrian streets and pedestrian passageways in mid-block, which make a city permeable and "fine grained" for people on foot. Natural features like creeks can be opened up even in downtowns.

Density Shifts Can Transform the Region

Density in relation to the whole region is an even more interesting issue and has healthy implications for society and nature alike. For one thing, developers and environmentalists have traditionally been at odds, even at arms, against one another. But if we were building something that actually radically reduced pressure on nature and was in-itself an expression of love and concern for nature, what then? Where's the fight? If future development of dense city centers and fairly dense neighborhood centers is paired with opening up of natural and agricultural areas, transit would work better from one higher density point to another rather than scattered over a large flat area. Food, already being distributed to thriving farmers markets and much of it organic, arriving from relatively close-in farms, even in larger stores, could be grown again on land slowly, steadily recovered from aging, low density development returned to agriculture.

Now imagine the benefits of having some wilder areas – lands along creeks for instance – that could be opening up as we densify and diversify toward the centers; these places would become mini-paradises for children. (I know because I've uncovered one such stretch of creek with 375 volunteers and Urban Creeks Council and Ecocity Builders.) Opened creeks are a real opportunity to learn about nature at the same time the dense areas are providing easy and quick access to all the accouterments of culture. Just walk or bike a couple blocks, and (if you don't arrive en mass) there are the frogs, garter snakes, egrets, dragon flies....

If the basic truth is that cities are far larger in area than they need to be thanks to cars, and if they can be reshaped for human beings, shifting densities and opening up nature, then every city, even the rather small city, has within its borders enough room to profoundly reshape itself not only for cultural and ecological benefits to its own citizens, but to profoundly affect regional transportation and land use patterns. When such a city exists, when visiting, you no longer need to bring a car to get around. Energy savings, air pollution, water run off, transportation safety, fresh food availability, the educational value of nature and wild life for its own sake – everything improves radically as cities move in this direction, each city adding pressure for others to change.

So What Next?

The transfer of development rights I mention here can be a major tool for reshaping cities, but there are other tools too if the people have the knowledge and decide to do something about it. City governments and their citizens can use general plans and area plans to design such "ecological" cities and begin rolling back sprawl. The first step for each of us is to shake up our imaginations by thinking about designing sensitive pedestrian environments in a high density format. When critics of this positive approach reiterate the same old line developed over the last eighty years saying "we must plan for cars," say "we're planning for people first from now on." From that point on, step by particular step, we are heading in the right direction.Spur logo

About the Authors: 

Richard Register is author of "Ecocity Berkeley: Building Cities for a Healthy Future" and editor of "Village Wisdom/Future Cities." He is president of Ecocity Builders and founder of the International Ecocity Conference Series started in Berkeley in 1990 and continued in Adelaide, Australia and Yoff, Senegal with the fourth conference in Curitiba, Brazil in April 2000.

Get The Urbanist

Join SPUR and get our magazine in your mailbox

Become a member