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Higher Density = Higher Productivity, Maybe Not

August 06, 2012 By Jessica Klion, Undergraduate Research Fellow

Cities across the country are becoming denser. For the first time in nearly a century, urban populations are growing more rapidly than their suburban counterparts, contributing to a shift in planning, which favors more densely packed urban neighborhoods. But does this increased population density actually matter in terms of economic productivity and innovation in cities?

As urban populations continue to grow, cities across the United States, and in other parts of the world, are rebuilding themselves. As the American and European economies continue to struggle, fighting tooth and nail to innovate and keep up with the global market, they must build their cities in ways that foster both creativity and success.

Denser cities can only be more productive if they are built in a way that fosters creativity. Key in determining if cities will become hotbeds of innovation is not that there are a lot of people living close together, but that there are thousands, and sometimes millions, of diverse people interacting with each other around every corner. The characters one meets on the bus or in the corner store have significant effects on their ability to break convention and thrive economically.

For cities to foster the high economic and creative productivity produced by high density, planners can build skyscrapers, as is encouraged by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who claims in an article that high-rises “enable human interactions that are the heart of economic innovations.”

Planners can also follow another approach, one that focuses on low-rise, often mixed-use development. In an article for The Atlantic Cities, Richard Florida claims that the biggest mistake builders can make is build skyscrapers. For Florida, the key interactions that enable innovation cannot be had in high-rise office buildings. Skyscrapers take away human scale, creating an atmosphere similar to the suburbs, an atmosphere that does not particularly encourage innovation.

New York offers a good example. As the most highly urbanized places in the United States, Manhattan has created a strong downtown with skyscrapers, where financial institutions are located, but it has also created walkable, human scale neighborhoods, such as Silicon Alley, named after the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley. While the downtown is productive, most of the new innovation is not coming out of the high-rises, but rather out of businesses located in Silicon Alley and places like it.

As one of the Midwest's major urban areas, the Twin Cities would do well to create neighborhoods that foster creativity and innovation. In many ways, they are on the right track. Home to 19 Fortune 500 companies and several colleges and universities, there is great opportunity for innovation in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Twin Cities' investment in light rail and in more transit-oriented development are good steps in creating downtown’s and neighborhoods that will foster human interaction and thus innovation.

Density is good, especially in relation to the productivity of urban residents. But too much density and the wrong type of density are bad, and will ultimately cause stagnation rather than innovation.

The notion that because density is good, more density is better is false. Building on a human scale is the key to creating the most productive cities. At some point skyscrapers become overwhelming, forcing people inside, rather than out and into the streets. The more there is on one block, the more opportunity there is for people to leave their apartments or offices and soak up a place.

Giving residents the opportunity to leave their high-rise offices and apartment buildings is what fosters creativity. Building skyscrapers on top of skyscrapers, while making cities denser, leads to an urban wasteland, one that is about as exciting and innovative as a car-centric suburb.

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