Public Comment

Commentary: High Density is Bad for Urban Fabric

Sharon Hudson
Tuesday September 05, 2006

Thank you, Steve Meyers, for your thoughtful response to my commentaries on the causes, meaning, and benefits of NIMBYism. I’m glad you found some points worth considering, even if you were put off by my “over-the-top hyperbole.” 

I stand firmly by my statement that many in Berkeley “propose an unpleasant and inhumane urban environment.…” Look around, Mr. Meyers: Is Berkeley becoming more pleasant and humane? Not in my neighborhood!  

One reason is that planners and developers who advocate higher density and less parking have managed to impose their philosophy upon us. So why has this not “improved the urban fabric” as intended? Because the dominant “smart growth” proponents focus on regional goals and not on local quality of life. And therefore no resources have been devoted to assessing or improving the human outcomes of development. And some don’t care about the damage they cause others.  

But apparently you belong to a more sympathetic group, which believes that higher density can actually improve urban life. So it might, if well designed. But the possibility and the reality are two different things. Although your voices are drowned out by the first group, the road to our increasingly unpleasant Berkeley environment is also paved with the good intentions of people like you. But why is this?  

First, because most of them apparently have not lived in high-density neighborhoods long enough to understand their problems. Simply stated, they advocate something they haven’t experienced and don’t understand. But they could fix this by simply moving to such neighborhoods and living there for several decades like me, or intensively interviewing those who live in them about their experiences. Then you could incorporate the reality into the ideal. 

Second and much more difficult, however, is the problem of what happens to our good intentions during the land use process. T.S. Eliot states it best: “Between the idea / And the reality…Between the conception / And the creation…Falls the Shadow.” In Berkeley, our Shadow is a morally bankrupt public process, which turns even good intentions into bad realities. 

You may think this is more “over-the-top hyperbole.” But often someone else’s “over-the-top hyperbole” looks more like reality once you know all the facts, or have experienced reality from their perspective. Eliminating the voices of multiple perspectives from the public process eventually leads to “the Big Lie” and bad concrete results. Listening to all the voices is most likely to lead to decisions that are constructive in the long term.  

In this regard, I note that you have also recently written (letter to the editor, Aug. 29) that a particular opinion should not have been published because it was “outside the bounds of what any given community feels is tolerable.” The common theme here is the elimination of voices, whether in geopolitics or local land use. But how can we make sure that a variety of experiences informs our public decisions? Political correctness and refusing to hear never accomplishes this—which is one reason Berkeley has been making worse and worse land use decisions.  

Your letter did make me wonder about the dividing line between your definition of what is “outside the bounds” and censor-worthy, and what is “over-the-top hyperbole” and merely annoying. But I agree with Ms. O’Malley that it is better for the community to make that decision for itself, in public, than for newspaper editors to make it for the community behind closed doors. The less she uses her truth to censor our truth, the more it leaves room for my truth—and yours. 


Sharon Hudson lives near the UC campus.