When I first heard phrases like "quality of life" and "the character of the neighborhood" I had no idea what they meant. I couldn't understand why Rudy Giuliani claimed to care about quality-of-life issues, but didn't seem to care that hot dogs come in packages of ten while hot dog buns come in packages of eight.
I got a lot of help understanding the anti-density mentality from StongTowns's Ian Rasmussen, who laid out his "party analogy" in this podcast with Chuck Marohn. Ian points out that at some parties, the guests bring more than their share of alcohol (and food, I would add), so every guest increases the fun.
In recent years, however, urban development has been more like a bad party full of stingy guests who don't even bring enough alcohol for themselves. "Every time someone shows up at the party, the party gets worse," Ian says. In the experience of residents, "Virtually every time a shovel went in the ground in the last fifty years, things got a little worse."
How did things get worse? Kaid Benfield talks a lot about access to "nature," and how often "dense" developments reduce the amount of parkland per capita. Others have talked about similar competition for resources like schools. While schools and parks are definitely important, I'm not convinced that they're the primary motivators for most NIMBYs. I think racial and social prejudice is definitely a factor for some people, but I'm not going to go into that in this post.
Ian Rasmussen paints a picture of the first arrivals at a new suburban development who are "fifteen minutes to downtown, fifteen minutes to the lake." But as more people arrive, congestion increases on the roads, and our suburbanites are now "more removed from the nearest pasture because there's another ring" of development beyond theirs. Both Benfield and Rasmussen point to congestion as a big factor. Others talk about competition for parking.
I'm leaning more and more towards the idea that in a lot of cases "density" just means less space for cars. A comment from "Bob" on Alpert's post lays it all out:
So, if these dwelling units become matter of right and are located where garages usually are, where will new residents park their cars? More vehciles flooding onto the streets? I know a family in AU Park that has a sub rosa 2 story ADU on an alley with several adults living in it. (Looks a lot like the photo, actually). Trash flows into the alley because there's no place to put it and the number of people living there. Plus 5 or so vehicles now squeeze onto the street in front of the house from this one property. And I thought that all ADU hipsters walk, bike or use Zipcar....
As in most cases, the threat from these cute little houses has nothing to do with parks or schools. It's about the value of allocating land for parking and driving. For David Alpert and most of the Greater Greater Washington readership, parking is a nasty scourge that separates people's homes from each other and from businesses without adding anything pleasant or interesting. For Linda Schmitt and Bob, parking is a scarce resource that is being gobbled up by the unwelcome new residents.
For the most part, "density" is an unhelpful, unenlightening way of thinking about neighborhood conflicts. Most conflicts about "density" are really conflicts about parking or road space. Try it yourself. Next time you're thinking of using the word "density" in this context, try replacing it with "competition for parking" or "competition for space on the road." I bet you'll find it clears some things up.