Public Comment

Commentary: Density: Cause or Effect

By Darren Conly
Tuesday October 30, 2007

In his well-researched Oct. 23 commentary on the cons of increasing the density of downtown and Berkeley as a whole, Neil Mayer provided me with two major negative points concerning increased density: 1) That it produces gritty, undesirable urban conditions, or 2) that increased density leads to gentrification and the ousting of working families. 

In support of his first conclusion he cites examples of denser California cities of over 100,000 people (i.e. cities that can be compared to Berkeley) such as Santa Ana, Inglewood, East Los Angeles, El Monte and Norwalk and lumps them as cities with “urban ills of every type, where low income people...crowd multiple families into a single home in order to afford the rent.” Mayer is right on in pointing out that a large number of dense cities (in addition to the ones concerned here) do have such social ills. 

However, an essential distinction that Mayer has appeared to have overlooked is between density measured as the sheer number of people per square mile and density measured as the number of people per household. For example, San Francisco, which by most measures is not seen as a “slum” (though it certainly does have its share of slums) is, according to, the second densest major city in California at 16,634 people per square mile and has an average of 2.5 people per household. El Monte, which Mayer implies as fitting into the “slum” category (I have never been to El Monte myself, so I do not know how much of a slum it is) has a population density of 12,169 people per square mile 4.2 people per household. What this means is that while the presumably “beautiful” San Francisco has a higher people-per-square-mile population density, its residents are less likely to be living with as many people than in the “grittier” El Monte. 

How does this distinction apply to the impact of increased density in our city of Berkeley? Well, one key factor in how density affects the quality of a city is not the level of density itself, but rather how that density is achieved. By pushing for a denser Berkeley, one supports having more housing units per unit of land, not more people per household. If one promotes a denser arrangement of housing units in Berkeley, the resulting increase in pure population density would come about in a more positive fashion. Specifically, we could have more people per square mile in Berkeley without degrading the quality of life by cramming more people into each household. 

In answer to his second (and on a superficial level contradictory) point that increased density promotes gentrification and the ousting of working families I respond by saying that yes, San Francisco and Berkeley are suffering from a housing crunch forcing many working families out, but attributing such consequences to increased density does not logically make sense. Larger economic forces such as high-paying high-end jobs and a beautiful climate are driving up the cost of housing in all Bay Area communities, regardless of their density. San Francisco’s housing market, for example, would still be on fire even if Rincon Hill weren’t being built. In essence, density is often a consequence of gentrification, not a cause. I will agree that increased density may not help keep housing prices down, but my point is that it will not spur housing prices to go up. 

I agree with Mayer that density should not go unchecked and that 20-story luxury condos are not a good idea for Berkeley. I merely have sought to point out that attributing certain urban problems such as high living costs, crime, poverty and blight to density is not necessarily an apt analysis. 


Darren Conly is a Berkeley resident.