Density can create beautiful, vibrant places. Too often the conversation simply is about increased traffic. Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

DC’s population recently reached its highest point in 40 years, which for some stokes fears that the city is undergoing a “Manhattanization” and makes them want to totally reject density of any kind. But housing density does a lot of great things for cities, and we don’t talk about those benefits enough.

Often, I find myself explaining to people I meet that I’m pro-density, but that’s not totally accurate. Sure, I think dense apartment style buildings are great, and I think rowhomes are beautiful. But I also think many single-family homes are beautiful, and I don’t believe in building up on every empty square in the city. I’m not a lover of density for density’s sake. Density is a tool, not an end in and of itself. I’m just for using that tool wisely.

What density really means is more people. More people brings more opportunity, more economic opportunity, and literally more life to a place. Those are the things I am for. But not everyone agrees.

More people can mean more problems… unless more people also solves those problems

The arguments against density come up in nearly every ANC meeting about development in DC, and they’re not all that hard to intuit: more people could mean more traffic, crowded schools, strained infrastructure, and more. This argument played out in the comments section of this post about density in November:

David J - With the metro being in lousy shape and likely to decline further how can we advocate more density?

waka waka - My question to you is, how do you move around all the people you envision cramming into upper northwest? Will metro run more buses, create a higher-capacity light rail line, or a heavy-rail subway? This is the one question I can never get a reasonable answer to, and it seems like a pretty important one to have answered before adding more and more people to an area of the city where transit is already severely strained.

These concerns make sense. But if you get beyond the instant reaction to increased density, it also makes sense that density can solve the very problems opponents say it creates. A number of commenters pointed this out:

Michelle Richenbach - Forgive me for being dumb, but isn't that what more density would alleviate?

Randall M. - The more dense an area is, would not the justification for more transportation options, other than cars, also increase? That's what drove NYC to build subways and bridges, right? The same could happen here if we add more people.

Payton Chung - For what its worth, the good folks at Metro's planning office say that densification, if done right, could bail out Metro in the long term.

Increased density brings more than just better transportation. In fact it brings more of what we like about the city

More people means more of a lot of things that are genuinely good for a city. When I first started at Greater Greater Washington, I spoke with a neighbor in Tenleytown who told me about watching three great local sandwich shops come and go in a short time at one location; the space never seemed able to sustain a tenant.

His diagnosis: the neighborhood was too focused on “preserving” itself and fighting new housing, and without more people around those kinds of businesses struggle to survive.

Without sufficient density local shops struggle to survive, typically leaving only national chains (who have stronger financial backing) to occupy the space. Image by NCinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

A lot of neighbors share this frustration, especially when opponents of density seem to spiral into hyperbole so easily:

Cara Shockley - Too many residents of the District want the amenities of density—neighborhood services and businesses—without increasing density. The problem is that businesses need to make a profit and services need to be accessible to the greatest number of people.

Density doesn't need to mean skyscrapers. Something as simple as allowing “mother-in-law” apartments or room letting in residential areas will increase density, in many cases sufficiently for businesses and services to find a neighborhood more attractive. Allowing housing above shops, which isn't permitted under certain zoning levels, can also increase the density while providing amenities. I'm not talking projects like The Wharf with eight stories of apartments or condos over restaurants. I mean two, three, or four (max) story buildings set up similarly to row houses with shops at street level and/or below street level and two to three apartments on top. There can even be a discount for a shop owner willing to live in one of the apartments to encourage it.

NIMBYism often prevents these simple solutions. This increases car use, which increases the rates of air pollution. We need to plan well and we need to agree that our neighborhoods are not preserved in amber.

People are moving here. Let’s plan how to welcome them, rather than how to keep them away

Of course, the other reality we have to face is that we are growing as region. Fighting that growth and demanding the same land use and housing patterns as exists now has consequences.

For one, we push all of our growing population to fringes:

Wanderer - In a growing metropolitan area, the real question isn't “do we want growth in the core city?” The real question is “do we want growth in the core city or do we want it in sprawling suburbs?” There will always be some jurisdiction that is willing to accept housing, but it probably won't be one with good transit or walkable services.

Beyond that, fighting density at every turn has the paradoxical effect of bringing even more of the kind of development opponents are so against in the first place.

drumz - [W]e're going to need to do something regardless because the population is growing.

Adding more rowhouses in single family neighborhoods would soak up a ton of growth without actually impacting the skyline which is what a lot of people worry about. Unfortunately we've pretty much locked those neighborhoods out of development which means that all of DC's new housing has to go into bigger buildings in a few areas.

cyco - As this post and other commenters have said, but apparently bears repeating, “density” is not necessarily equal to “small apartments in high rises.” In fact, it is anti-density NIMBYism in large swathes of the region that has resulted in new construction being concentrated in high-rise areas like NoMa and Navy Yard. That sort of building would likely continue regardless, but under the current system it's essentially the only kind of construction that is feasible (and profitable).

Paradoxically, if mildly denser, incremental development like townhouses and garden apartments were allowed (note - not “mandated,” simply allowed) in more of the region – and actually permitted to be built in a reasonable timeframe in places already zoned for it – there would be a more diverse housing stock that better preserves the character of the city, as the anti-density crowd claims to want.

Instead, because of the extensive regulatory hoops that need to be jumped through, causing an artificial scarcity of developable land, we have the current paradigm of “vacant lot vs. luxury high-rise” with fairly little in between.

I don't doubt that the majority, perhaps even the vast majority, of Americans prefer single-family homes, yards, etc. The problem is that the (artificial) scarcity of high-quality urban places means that if even 10% of people want to live in such places, demand far outstrips supply and prices rise considerably – exactly the situation today and for the foreseeable future.

And besides, what's so bad about providing housing for young people and empty nesters? Everyone has to live somewhere.

Throwing lobs from our respective corners limits our options. We have a growing region and that growth can make a better region, especially if we can meet in the middle and have more balanced discussions around what density can look like and bring. Let’s do our part and make a better case for it.


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David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy and organizing. He lives in Edgewood.