It’s a law of physics that, in liquid, the denser object sinks lower. But this particular rule doesn’t hold true in the building of cities. Density doesn’t sink a community — sprawl does.
That’s because population density makes sense. And it’s the kind of sense that can be measured in taxpayer dollars saved, an economy diversified and a city made greener. Sustainable cities are the building blocks of a sustainable nation, one that can survive in a changing world.
There’s a saying that goes something like, “God was good enough to give man the beauty of the world, but cruel enough to give him the drive to destroy it.”
Since 1981, the amount of farmable land in the United States has dropped from about 20 to 16 percent of our total land area. While a drop of 4 percent may seem like a small change, it represents a loss of over 141,000 square miles of arable land. That’s nearly the entire state of Montana.
I don't write this to preach Armageddon, but rather to check a reality that we so easily take for granted. And land is a fleeting reality.
Concentrating population centers saves natural beauty and farmland. But more than that, dense cities greatly reduce our dependence on the automobile. A dependence that is responsible for nearly one-fifth of all carbon emissions in the United States.
The stark reality is our current mode of life is not sustainable. Our generation will be faced with many existential crises. Survival in our changing environment will be the most critical.
Now I’m hesitant to speak in generalizations about our generation. The media loves to pigeonhole Millennials as one of only a handful of things. But as the largest generation ever, diversity of thought is inevitable. That said, three of the things the media tells us we are, I like.
First, we seek out cities. Second, we are economically enterprising. And third, we try to be socially conscientious. This is the segment of Millennials that every city wants and Ann Arbor needs. And, you guessed it, urban density can help.
Ann Arbor needs a next generation of residents, one that will respect and uphold our remarkable values. As of 2010, people ages 20 to 24 make up more than 20 percent of Ann Arbor’s population. If we bump up one age bracket, to people ages 25 to 29, that number halves. It make sense. After all, we are a college town and people graduate. But how do we retain more of that 20 percent come commencement day?
When a city builds out, it cuts off its ability to create vibrant cultural and economic centers or provide meaningful transit options. Both elements are essential to our generation, a whopping 86 percent of whom say that public transportation is critical. When we single out Millennials making less than $30,000 a year, that statistic jumps to 92 percent. This suggests that affordability is also imperative to the Millennial equation.
Ann Arbor has one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, with the average one-bedroom apartment costing a startling $1,244 per month. There is clearly a huge demand for housing that is not being met by supply. Denser housing development provides more housing options with direct access to awesome amenities, like a vibrant downtown and public transit.
All that said, creating an affordable city does more than allow young residents to pay rent. It speaks to an inner drive to live in a truly diverse community, not one sanitized by forces of gentrification.
But Ann Arbor is still a rich community. With the average price of a house hanging out north of $300,000, it’s not uncommon for residents to be paying $7,000 or more a year in property taxes. It may be startling, then, that the city isn’t in great fiscal shape — every year, our costs are rising faster than our revenue. That’s a scary place to be. Luckily, density can help.
The logic is pretty simple. Infrastructure costs a lot of money. And suburban living requires a lot of infrastructure. Just think about how much all those winding roads must cost, not to mention the pipes that run beneath. In fact, the marginal cost of providing services to a new building is so high that a dense, multi-use development costs society between 38 and 50 percent less than a single-family home.
Your local government isn’t just saving money, though. It’s also tapping new revenue streams. New neighbors mean everyone’s services keep coming, but new taxes don’t need to.
Of course, all of this means change. But change is inevitable, and when it comes to sustainability and survival, change is necessary.
The desires of youth will likely shape the future. But those desires must be refined by the moderation and historical perspective of older generations. For that reason, density can’t just mean skyscrapers and subways; often it will simply mean townhouses and duplexes. Like every generation that has preceded us, we will reshape our nation. I hope ours will reshape densely.
Zachary Ackerman is an LSA senior and the Democratic nominee (Ward 3) for Ann Arbor City Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A previous version of this column listed the average rental room rate in Ann Arbor as $1,118, which is the national average. It has been updated to provide the average rental rate of a one-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor.