The Pains of Rebecoming: Density Difficulties on the Road to Urban Regrowth


Between 1950 and 2000 Philadelphia lost over 25% of it’s population, dropping from over 2 million to just over 1.5 million. This was not an odd occurrence in US cities at the time. Urban areas all over the country were seeing their population dwindle as improvements in transportation infrastructure (particularly automotive) and low fuel prices made the suburbs a viable escape for those with the resources. These escapees formed the sprawling suburbs and generated the now prevalent commuter culture that has driven development direction for over 50 years.

Cities, meanwhile, devolved, especially around their edges. Philadelphia, in particular, saw it’s building infrastructure rot like so many uncared for teeth and literally fall out while poverty expanded and property values dropped. The result was severely undervalued housing and an urban landscape characterized by vacant land and abandoned structures. This in turn caused more departures, and the destruction of the density that makes an urban environment successful. Now, in the wake of this quiet devastation, we face some distinct roadblocks to recovery. The sociological conditions created by the flight to suburbia have erected barriers to the redensifying of blown out neighborhoods in several key ways.

First and foremost, vacancy itself led to a new structure in some neighborhoods where individuals and groups were able to create tiny fiefdoms of vacant property either through cheap acquisition or outright usurpation. This was aided by city programs attempting to wash their hands of vacant land and doing so in the least urban way possible ($1 vacant lot sales being the most notable). Vacancy became a kind of marker for these neighborhoods and the adaptability of residents allowed the low density housing, “greened” land and trash strewn, often dangerous lots to evolve into a perception of open space, flexibility and a sad approximation of the suburban dream. This perception, while by no means universal, is still pervasive enough to effect current development efforts through a twisting of priorities among neighborhood associations. Anti-development sentiment, grounded in the misunderstanding of the operation and value of open space in an urban setting, wars against everyone’s desire for the amenities and safety brought by density and stymies attempts to reverse the trend toward dangerous emptiness.

Overgrowth like this might be fine on a cul-de-sac but not 2 blocks from a subway station.

A second, significant blow to the urban density ideal was a zoning backlash which, in seeking to protect neighborhoods, condemned them to low density, under-serviced, urban purgatory. Of course, this was not without cause. Depopulated neighborhoods tend to attract businesses that are less service-oriented than predatory. In an understandable effort to fend of the carrion feeders, neighborhoods often pushed for rezoning which would require any and all commercial development to appear before the neighbors and zoning board before being able to move in. Huge swaths of previously mixed zoning were relabeled as single family residential, even around transit stops and former commercial corridors. Again, this condition became imbedded in the neighborhood consciousness and the kind of suburban separation of uses permeated the public understanding of the neighborhood. Areas which historically mingled business and residence now sought to emulate the kind of clean delineation of the suburban development model, a model reliant on cars and anathema to a vibrant and safe urban environment.

Just because you might not want this business as a neighbor doesn't mean you don't want any business.

Third, the city’s eviscerated population decreased the connection between neighborhoods by erecting barriers of blight and damaging the public transportation infrastructure. This reduced access to key points of service and necessary amenities like retail stores, groceries and public spaces. This, in turn, bred an increased reliance on cars and the types of development strategies that cars support. Big box stores grew up in even more troubled areas, effectively killing off many of the remaining neighborhood businesses and driving even more car ownership. Of course, where there are cars, there are parking problems. Unlike the suburbs, the city is lacking in farm land to pave over and line with parking spaces and parking concerns end up as constant distractions in the face of larger redevelopment questions. Concerns about parking are a considerable pain point in urban density discussions in those neighborhoods which have seen their commercial opportunities disappear.

How will I get here without my car?

So, now we find ourselves in a challenging situation. America’s bucolic, country cottage fantasy was fulfilled and, it turns out, simultaneously destroyed (to some extent) by the automobile. Walkable, urban neighborhoods are starting to attract the prodigal children of an earlier generations’ flight as miles of strip malls and big box store, pavement oceans become less attractive and evidence of the ominous future of fuel becomes more evident. This is not to say we are likely to see a tidal shift away from the burbs, but our cities are beginning to grow again and that growth will, in many cities, be infill. The physical size of the cities should not expand, but the density of it’s built environment will and this is destined to clash with the sociological effects of years of blight.

I am, of course, operating under the assumption that density and a mixture of use in the city is beneficial, particularly around public transit hubs. It leads to better access to amenities, less money and energy spent on travel and increased public safety (among other things). Some might argue with this but they will find me difficult to convince.That said, I am a little less confident in the reasons for resistance against this increase in density that I have listed above. I am, at least, sure that the above reasons are not comprehensive, so I would like to hear what you think. Why do we sometimes see such a strong push against density in the neighborhoods that would benefit from it most? Why is a mixture of use worrying to so many? How can this be overcome?

Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.


  1. J T. Ramsay says:

    I think anti-development sentiment is understandable given the orgy that ensued after the dotcom bubble popped. I think you also have to ask “cui bono” when it comes to development. I mean, who benefits most from it? Intensification in and of itself isn’t a universal good.

    (Forgive me, but I worship at the altar of Logan and Molotch, whose work has been instrumental in my understanding of urban political economy. Their landmark book, Urban Fortunes, became a bible to me as I worked through these thorny issues.)

  2. Dan Pohlig says:

    So many good points and I’ve seen this play out in each of the examples you cite. Neighbors get fired up when a landowner who has allowed them to use his vacant piece of property as a community garden finally decides to develop the property and give an opportunity for more people to move into the neighborhood. And most of these urban “green spaces” are just dead spaces that no one uses except maybe to give their dog a place to go. Why not put a home or a shop on them?

    Neighboring business owners are up in arms about a proposed (and mostly streetscape sensitive) senior housing project that will allow many older residents to move out of their oversized rowhomes into something more manageable. They object because it will go on a current, city-owned lot (in the middle of a residential block!) that is used for parking. Neighbors, too, fear for the loss of their parking spaces. Well, guess, what… more parking=more cars. In theory, less parking could lead to fewer cars.

    And I still shake my head every time I go up or down the dead quiet Italian Market at night since none of the stores – which are in buildings designed for ground level retail and upstairs residential – have people living above them.

    Residents often cite fears of gentrification and changing the character of a neighborhood as the reason they don’t want developers or rehabbers to come in and create more commercial and residential opportunities. And most developers aren’t as responsible when it comes to building things as you guys are so some of those fears are justified.

    Anyway… great post. Touched on a lot of things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Sorry for this stream of consciousness reply but I should put a lot more thought into it.

  3. Louis Sauer says:

    Although I moved from Philadelphia in 1979 and have not visited since 2002, my experiences are not as extreme as you describe. This may be because I did not visit the places you describe, or it could be that you may be exaggerating the conditions.

    Philadelphia, as most cities, contains a rich mixture of contrasting neighborhoods of which some may be in decline (e.g. Woodland) and others flourishing (e.g. Center City between Walnut and Lombard from the Schuylkill to the Delaware Rivers, Chestnut Hill, etc.). From what you see now, is it your understanding that even these residential neighborhoods exhibit the characteristics of ‘flight’ you write about?


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