Public Comment

Commentary: The Facts About Density and Development

By Neil Mayer
Tuesday October 23, 2007

It’s clearly battle time over the shape of Berkeley, most imminently over downtown’s height limits, with more battles to follow. Let’s arm ourselves for the upcoming showdown on density, development, and downtown with some basic facts. Where does Berkeley stand, in the spectrum of communities, in terms of people crowding into space?  

Happily, we can easily access reliable and consistent data, from a website called DataPlace created by mortgage giant Fannie Mae’s philanthropic arm, using data from the U.S. Census. DataPlace compiles population density data (residents per square mile) for every settlement—from small towns to big cities—in the nation. And it allows site visitors to request information about the ranking of a given city against others in the state or nation, organized if you wish by the size of communities.  

Here is the Berkeley story in a nutshell. We are already one of the most crowded communities in the country, large or small. And our few competitors in California are hardly places we want to imitate. The specifics: 

There are 25,150 “places” in the entire country. Berkeley ranks 172nd of all of them in density, at 9,823 people per square mile (in year 2000)—102,743 people living in just under 10.5 square miles. That means we are denser than 99.3 percent of all other places in the United States. That was our position already at the start of the decade, before the recent spurt in construction in the city.  

Berkeley’s population has increased by 3,500 between 2000 and 2006, according to the Census Bureau’s new American Community Survey. That pushes our density up another 335 people per square mile, to 10,158. 

Ah, you say, but Berkeley is a fairly large urban place in the midst of a major metropolis, expected to be denser than villages and towns. OK, let’s look at the 245 U.S. cities with 100,000 residents or more. Berkeley is after all among the very smallest of those. Our city ranked 20th in density among those major communities, ahead of 92 percent of the big cities including places such as Washington, D.C. and next-door neighbor Oakland. Oakland in particular had, amazingly, less than one third of Berkeley’s density in 2000. Forget about Jerry Brown and his 10K plan. Oakland could add 150,000 residents tomorrow and not reach Berkeley’s density level.  

Let’s then turn to our home state of California exclusively. Here Berkeley ranks eighth in density among all of the state’s communities of any size. Who are the seven “ahead” of us? At the front, East Los Angeles—a prototype for urban ills of every type, where low-income people, often recent immigrants, crowd multiple families into a single home or apartment in order to afford the rent. Second, Inglewood, another Los Angeles-area concentration of poor people—this time African Americans—rivaling in social problems largely Hispanic East L.A. What is notable and clear is that, in such places, higher densities are forced on people by their lack of resources and perhaps other factors including discrimination, not selected deliberately as matters of preferred municipal policy. Third in the density line, El Monte, East L.A.’s near neighbor. Fourth, Santa Ana, where 4.6 people are crowded into each housing unit, 75 percent more than in New York City or L.A. Next, Daly City—literally the living model for Malvina Reynolds’ song about “Little Boxes Made of Ticky Tacky.” Then Norwalk, the final ending place for three of the L.A. region’s busiest freeways. And seventh, San Francisco, where, if I may shift to a less scientific mode, we see a jewel whose treasured contours and bay and coastal vistas are being obliterated by Rincon Towers and more, where working families and African-American communities and households with children are disappearing in a sea of gentrification, and all of BART and Muni together can’t leave a parking space available or a moment between one 24-hour “rush hour” and the next.  

Are these the seven “models” we hope to “catch” by building more and higher? 

We are already a high-density city. What are we to gain from further density, when the competition looks so far from attractive? Apparently not what we’ve been promised. Proponents of more building say it’ll keep families in town. The facts: From 2000 to 2006 alone, in a period of booming housing construction, the number of Berkeley households with children under 18 fell by one seventh. Or, say pro-development folks, we’ll keep housing cost from skyrocketing. Nope: In the same six years median house prices nearly doubled, and rents—partly protected by rent control for continuing tenants—rose 38 percent. That rent increase was nearly half again faster than the average for the rest of the (non-controlled) country. Residents of more modest means might be retained, as part of our treasured diversity? Unh, uh. Family income in Berkeley, which exceeded the national median by 40 percent in 2000, was instead 50 percent higher than national levels by 2006, at $87,000. Our African-American population might hold on? Sorry. African Americans were nearly 14 percent of Berkeley’s 2000 population and down to less than 10 percent by 2006. 

Pounding away on Berkeley’s limited remaining living space is not going to change a housing submarket set in a burgeoning region 60 times its size. 

So we have to ask, for what reason are we to be headed toward more development and seemingly away from our values? We run the risk of ruining our community, where the wisdom of citizens’ commitment to resident diversity, historic preservation, human scale, local independent entrepreneurship, and care for all elements of the environment and open space have allowed us to accommodate richness of humanity, building, and space, at already high densities. Push beyond, where the downtown developers and pro-development folks want to take us, and we risk despoiling our own community. For society at large, we risk proving that density, rather than a part of the solution to global warming they want to pursue, is, as so many already fear, a path to be avoided.  

Let’s save the limited space we have left for dealing directly with our needs: for affordable housing, places for our kids and ourselves to play and learn, models of architectural mastery new and old, green commerce and innovation—none of which we can find trickling down from new masses of high end condos. Greater density does make sense in some places. How about if Berkeley lets Orinda, or for that matter Oakland, start catching up and husbands its own “space” for our top priorities? 


Neil S. Mayer was the founding director  

of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development.