I thought it would be a good idea to provide a visual of how auto-centric land use destroys the urban continuity of a neighborhood. The above picture is an aerial photograph of Manhattan’s Upper West Side between 83rd and 86th streets, while the bottom picture is an aerial of Miami’s Allapattah neighborhood between NW 23rd and NW 27th St. It is amazing how much land is wasted to provide parking in the Miami photo – you’re looking at almost a 1:1 ratio of square footage allocated for parking to square footage allocated for housing. Much of this land could have been used to build more affordable housing units, which is obviously in high demand throughout Miami-Dade. And, before you cry foul, this development is located only five blocks from the Santa Clara metrorail station.

Also, notice how the compact nature of the New York neighborhood saves massive numbers of acres to be allocated to parks and open spaces nearby (Central Park). If the Upper West Side, as well as the other other neighborhoods that surround Central Park, were designed in a similar form as the Allapattah development, Central Park would not be possible as we know it, because the land just would not be available.

Moreover, the density in the Upper West Side affords small, independent, non-chain retail to thrive. So many people live within one square mile that it becomes possible to have several stores offering similar categories of merchandise within the same block, as well as on every block. Consequently, residents can find everything they need on their own block, in turn cutting down on demand for long distance trips and sustaining small businesses versus regional retail as in Miami.

Throughout most of Miami-Dade County, densities are too low to support this kind of small business on every block. As a result, regional retailers (often big box or chain) stand alone catering to populations within multiple-mile-radii. Of course, this requires most people to access these regional retail centers by automobile, which leads to bad city codes requiring the kind of auto-oriented land use in the picture above. This leads me to my final point…

The Upper West Side, a rather high-income neighborhood, affords people to eschew car ownership (over 75% of residents in the Upper West Side don’t own cars), which easily leads to savings of several thousands of dollars a year, while the low-income residents of Allapattah continue to be compelled to an auto-centric paradigm.

I could go on foreover about the positives of density, given quality urban design of course. However, for this post I wanted to focus on the visual.

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12 Responses to Jonesing For Quality Density

  1. Michael Emilio + Miami Real Estate says:

    Great comparison shot!

    I found this section integral:
    “Moreover, the density in the Upper West Side affords small, independent, non-chain retail to thrive. So many people live within one square mile that it becomes possible to have several stores offering similar categories of merchandise within the same block, as well as on every block. Consequently, residents can find everything they need on their own block, in turn cutting down on demand for long distance trips and sustaining small businesses versus regional retail as in Miami.”

    That right there is one of the biggest challenges we have in Miami in regard to weaning ourselves off of automobile centered lives. If we could have businesses at a walking distance from our homes (a far cry from the urban sprawl we currently have) this would be HUGE in alleviating some of the congestion we have on our roadways.

    A real estate trend I’ve been noticing in my business is the proliferation of mixed-use buildings. These are buildings that have retail shops on the first level and residential units above. An example of this is the Metropolitan Miami Project (a.k.a Met Miami). I see this as step in the right direction toward ameliorating some of these challenges.

    Thanks again for a great article!

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  2. BornInTheGrove says:

    Manhattan was built and booming before the car was invented. Miami, well, you know. It’s unfair to compare this city with that city up north.

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Apples and oranges, you are comparing a neighborhood that became what it is because of the huge central park, vs. a neighborhood that has not yet come of age. I agree our zoning needs a serious overhaul, and the recentralization of our urban areas will force the need for more localized shops and mixed use buildings, as well as creating greater demand for mass transit.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    Likewise, it’s not exactly fair to compare the most affluent neighborhood in New York City with one of the poorer neighborhoods in Miami.

    A#2

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  5. Ryan says:

    That wasn’t my point to compare the two neighborhoods categorically. I was just illustrating what quality density looks like, and what can come about as a result.

    Obviously the Upper West Side is a very wealthy neighborhood and Allapattah is not, but that does not in itself determine how many storefronts per block, businesses per block, or why regional retail is the dominant form in most of Miami. Nor does the wealth factor determine how much land is wasted allocted to parking. Being a poor neighborhood with transit options, developments in Allapattah should be built to minimize parking as to allow these residents to plausibly cede the costly burden of car ownership. I could’ve chosen to show you other examples of neighborhoods that built up around transit in the pre-automobile era, then during a period of decline started implementing suburban solutions that have now cannabilzed such areas. Now that they’ve been suburbanized, they are still poor neighborhoods, but have lost their dense urban infrastructure (and makes expensive car ownership more necessary, adding further to the cycle).

    And it’s not apples vs. oranges. Obviously Allapattah hasn’t come of age yet, but my point was to illustrate that it will never come of age with quality density like the Upper West Side, no matter how wealthy the neighborhood ever becomes, as long as developments like in the photo continue to get built.

    And it doesn’t matter when the Upper West Side came of age or even that transit in the pre-automobile era dictated the density. What matters is that Miami is trying to move into a more pedestrian-oriented, denser, more transit dependent direction today – which will not be realized as long developments such as the one above and the proposed Grove Station continue to get built.

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  6. madeindade says:

    Ryan, you are ignoring the culture of the place and people’s aspirations…
    Keep in mind several things: the barriers to owning a car are low (even the working poor can afford a used Hyundai for $800 and not bother to insure it); developers doing affordable housing won’t build buildings without parking because they won’t be marketable (see above); not providing parking forces a lifestyle change in a culture where auto-ownership and auto-worship is the norm; our transit service blows (even in Allapattah – waiting 30min for the Metorail is not how I want to spend my saturday morning)
    Miami is not going to “move into a more pedestrian-oriented, denser, more transit dependent direction” until there is a culture shift away from the image of freedom and luxury that the auto provides.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Why would anyone want to live in such a high population dense area with businesses and retail on the same block? I don’t think it has as much to do with reliance on cars. If I wanted to live on top of someone else, I would move to a city like New York- oh, wait, couldn’t afford it. I think a lot of it has to do with living in open spaces; not having them in a park 6 blocks away.

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  8. madeindade says:

    The above comment illustrates my point…

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  9. Ryan says:

    Even a used Hyundai for $800 requires minimum PIP – it’s the law. If we were to support the working class buying cars for that cheap and not insuring them is borderline socioeconomic discrimination – and it’s flat out dangerous.

    As for affordable housing, the city code offers incentives for developers to build LESS parking – this in theory lowers the cost of the projects (which makes them more feasbile and attractive for developers) and allows more units to be built.

    Waiting 30 minutes on a Saturday morning for the metrorail only exaggerates an infrequent event. At least 90 percent of the time, you will not have to wait a half an hour for the metrorail.

    So, Madeindade, since I agree that the culture issue is a problem, how would you suggest accomplishing this culture shift?

    Anon, the low-density, detatched housing, auto-centric living model you mention is a global anomaly; the vast majority of major cities around the world have housing densities in a league similar to that of New York City (sans Manhattan south of 59th St). The low-density model is a major factor holding Miami back from becoming a truly world class city. That’s why the city planning department is trying to accomplish the goals I spoke of above. Think about it – how many world class cities can you name with the low-density, auto-centric model?

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  10. madeindade says:

    At the risk of seeming like I have too much time on my hands I put some numbers into Excel and came out with 42% of the time Metrorail is in service the train operates every 30 minutes (all day saturday and sunday and weekdays after 9 PM) and besides that their advertised 6 minute rush hours service always seems like 15 minutes to me. As for parking, the Loft 1, 2, and 3 buildings are only examples I know of where parking has been omitted – instead you get a space in a Miami Parking Authority garage as part of the monthly maintenance fees. Unfortunately there is no maximum on parking like San Francisco has – the city is afraid by limiting parking it will discourage development and in addition to that banks won’t lend to projects that they feel are not marketable. So yes, in theory you could provide less parking but the auto dominant culture prevents it.

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  11. Jeff says:

    Historically, low-density housing is an anomaly. However, for the past 2 decades, it’s increasingly been the norm worldwide for anyone who can afford it.

    For every upper-middleclass family who makes a tiny London flat their only home, many, MANY more live in exurban neighborhoods 40 miles (and ~2 hours) from London that are almost indistinguishable from their American counterparts (glued-on fake-Tudor fetish and left-side driving notwithstanding). Check out the websites for new-home developers in Scotland… you’ll find plenty of walled cul-de-sac’ed neighborhoods 20 miles from Edinburgh, full of homes built almost verbatim from American homeplans: 3-car garage, 2-story foyer+living+dining room with grand staircase, plywood stapled to 2×4 framing and no insulation to speak of, veneer-brick fronts w/cheap vinyl siding sides & rears, and (dear god) *LANAI* (in Scotland, mind you).

    Head over to southeast Asia (Particularly the Manila metro area, most mid-sized Chinese cities, and exurbs of big cities like Shanghai). Literally EVERYONE in China wants to live like Americans… and in another 10-20 years, several hundred million of them WILL be. I’ve seen pics of tract home neighborhoods near Chonggqing where you could blindfold someone walking through a generic American suburb, fly them there, drop them off in the middle of a cul-de-sac, and it would take them AT LEAST 10 minutes to even suspect that they weren’t in the US… and another 5-10 minutes to actually believe it.

    Ditto, for Australia. South Africa. Even parts of India (Pune, Bangalore, and other places with exploding new wealth). In most of the world, the first thing people do upon attaining mass affluence is run for the virgin countryside to live like Americans.

    Just about the only large exception is Latin America… and there, it’s mainly because highrise buildings are perceived as safer from armed bandits, kidnappers, and rapists than single-family homes an upper middleclass family could otherwise afford to buy.

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  12. Max says:

    The focus on the income level of the Upper West Side is a distraction. Most neighborhoods in NYC, including far less affluent ones in Brooklyn and Queens, have a similar density to the one depicted here.

    You don’t have to be rich to enjoy a high-density, pedestrian and transit oriented lifestyle.

    Unfortunately, NYC as a whole does keep getting pricier. Probably this is because so many people want this lifestyle, and so few places in the country can provide it. In fact, almost no place outside of NYC does it very well.

    If another major metro area with lots of historic high-density, mixed-use building stock would get its act together and make its transit system into something world-class, people would flock to it. It may be that only a minority of the U.S. population craves this lifestyle, but it’s a large and growing minority.

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