Tuesday, March 23

Americans could fit within New Hampshire

The folks over at Good magazine (update: Shane Keaney to be precise) are the masters of pithy, attractive charts that make you think. How about this one?

Ryan Advent adds that the whole global population, living at the density of Brooklyn, would be able to fit within the borders of Texas. And if we were willing to get things as tight as Manhattan, the land area of Virginia would serve us just fine.

Ok. This might need a little preemptive defense. Nobody is suggesting a federal ordinance requiring everyone to move en masse to the "Live Free or Die" state. And, yes, agriculture and most industry are not included within this hypothetical situation. It's not as if Brooklyn right now is exactly a self-sufficient community hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. There will need to be extra space provided for this.

But, that being said ...

Doesn't this create an interesting frame for the density discussion? Promoters of suburban lifestyles always raise the trope of density, more often than not conjuring up images from Blade Runner or high-rise soviet bloc apartments, to express how horribly crowded a smart growth scenario would have to be. Last week, Joel Kotkin's piece "Forced March to The Cities" interpreted some attempts to have motorists pay for their own parking as "social re-engineering" and a "cramming policy." A smog-filled downtown of skyscrapers is pictured to accompany the text. Kotkin's overall goal is to create a sharp dichotomy between a suburban lifestyle of yards, natural surroundings, your own detached home, and a visceral picture of an urban extreme - the kind of place that elicits the proverbial, "I enjoy visiting, but I wouldn't want to live there." Then he wants you to choose between the two.

But is Brooklyn really that bad? People spend good money to live in those brownstones on tree-lined streets. The homeownership rate isn't as high as most places, but many people do own (and there's nothing about the physical form itself that would prevent more ownership, or more tree-lined streets for that matter). The scenario already accounts for the addition of more parks to allow access to natural areas. On top of this, even in Brooklyn, plenty of space is currently devoted to motor vehicle access. Reduce driving, and we have an even more livable and spacious environment.

Then there's the fact that this scenario is scalable: How about half the density of Brooklyn on twice the size of New Hampshire?

Sometimes its useful to step back from economic analysis and debates over policy to take a moment to look at the raw physics of the matter. This is one possible scenario we could live in if we choose to. Once calibrated to reality, then we can talk policy.


petersigrist said...

Amazing. Thanks for bringing this up. I wonder what it would be like to live so close to everyone in the world. Given the many forms of development that take place in densely populated areas, it could bring incredible advances. On the other hand, could so many people with different values and customs avoid disastrous conflict? Perhaps after several generations a collective sense of identity would evolve and shared space might even reduce conflict, but communication and governance would be challenging for years. I know you're not proposing this as a solution, just as an interesting thought. It definitely puts things in perspective.

Daniel Nairn said...

Yeah, I think it's the "one big neighborhood" title that seems a little kum-bay-yah to me. I'd imagine that, given the diversity of lifestyles and associations in our country, in reality things would be broken up into multiple "neighborhoods." That would certainly be more interesting, in my opinion. So I don't really follow the radical social implications this chart might be making.

But I'm not sure if living in such close physical proximity will necessarily lead to conflict. NYC already has tons of immigrant groups with various backgrounds living in relative peace with each other.

petersigrist said...

Good point. As long as there were enough resources to meet everyone's needs maybe everyone could live peacefully. Variations on this kind of density could possibly happen in virtual space, something like Marshall McCluhan's vision.

Eric Orozco said...

...In the spirit of Koolhaas. I'm sure New Hampshire Nimbys won't be too pleased. I suspect we'd all end up somewhere in Kansas anyway, due to proximity to resources.

This model inadvertently sparks interesting side thoughts to me about Brooklyn itself. Brooklyn supports great diversity, a dizzying mixture of multiple cultures that are multi-valent within themselves. What creates this? I think it is important to think about this. Maybe Brooklyn is Brooklyn because you also have Manhattan and Long Island and Jersey and Conn. Brooklyn (until recently anyway) is cheap enough to be close enough. It is NYC's version of the close-in neighborhood. The social proximity exists in Brooklyn for reasons that are actually tied to scale and geography.

At the scale of New Hampshire, I'm not sure that Brooklyn's social advantages would transfer all that well. My suspicion is that the tendency to clump into large mono-cultural blocks will be greater (so less people will be in touch with folks unlike themselves - maybe less in touch than they are in a typical subdivison...not to mention in Brooklyn). Maybe in the transitions between these mono-cultural clumps you may have something like Brooklyn.

Bill said...

hey...oh! Brooklyn IS Nyc,and it is the way it is for the same reasons NYC is the way it is. Urban form can't explain everything--that's all there is to it.

A nice thought experiment in some ways, but I don't think it says much beyond about our human condition than 'holy shit we're consuming a lot of land'. I'd like to see a comparison with China, and a comparison of density instead of Brooklyn to maybe a city like Guangzhao.

Also, I think we're already in a circumstance where billions of people with different values and customs are living together in a closed system...called earth...Whether we avoid the ultimate 'disastrous conflict' remains to be seen.

Anna B said...

That observation struck me too - how much space we really need to take up. Of course, it sounds like they are dedicating the entire state to residential (or, at best, mixed-use) land use. Adding in necessary industry, municipal infrastructure, and avoiding unfriendly topographical features would put us in a bigger state for sure. Even so, I'm sure it wouldn't be a Texas- or even New York-sized state. Maybe, say, Indiana? If Indiana didn't mind?

The thing that struck me about using Brooklyn density, too, was that I don't think of Brooklyn as being outrageously crowded, either. I haven't seen much of it, but beyond some of the high-rise developments near the river, I would suspect it looks about like any other typical 3-to-5 story buildings along reasonably wide streets. We're not even talking midtown Manhattan.

Shane Keaney said...

In response to Daniel, The contest was/is about neighborhoods so I was just trying to tie it in a little!

Daniel Nairn said...

Shane. Sorry I didn't credit you. For some reason, I didn't see your name attached. Anyway, I've updated the post.