It’s likely that Pruitt-Igoe, the public housing project in St. Louis, is the most famous and maligned image in architectural history. Its slab-like blocks rose from a scar in the urban fabric, the Corbusian ideal and an American dystopia. Yet at only 50 housing units per acre, this towering symbol of all things bad in urban design wasn’t all that dense. If we want to talk about density, we need to set Pruitt Igoe aside.
I mention Pruitt-Igoe because the image has emerged in Marin’s affordable housing debate. Bob Silvestri recently used it as an example of what he says the state and regional governments will force the Bay Area to build in a recent forum on affordable housing. Density mandates for 30 housing units per acre, he argued, would lead us to the worst kind of affordable housing and away from best practices.
Though there are plenty of reasons to oppose the regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) process, density and the specter of Pruitt-Igoe-like towers from Napa to San Jose is not one of them.
Rowhouses, when built right, come in around 50 units per acre, with older neighborhoods going a bit higher. Boston’s North End is over 50 units per acre. Washington, DC’s fabled Georgetown comes in at over 50 units per acre. In San Francisco, Russian Hill has 50, North Beach has 90, and the area west of Union Square goes as high as 536 units per acre. If density were the downfall of Pruitt Igoe, you’d think Union Square would be the center of a particularly wretched hive of humanity, not a trendy shopping district.
The causes of Pruitt-Igoe’s monumental failure could (and has) filled reports and books, but the failure can be boiled down to a deliberate denial of urban form. Stacking 50 units per acre atop one another while leaving empty grassy space around each tower for generic community gathering is a discredited idea that should have never earned such credence in the first place.
But to use this particular packaging of this particular density as an argument against density itself is disingenuous. It ignores common sense and the facts at hand. Good urban form can be low density and it can be high density, just as poor urban form can be either one.
And good urban form is based on the needs of the human as a creature. We walk, so a good city tries to maximize the pleasure of that activity. We are social, so a good city tries to maximize the incidence of casual socializing. That requires a certain level of compactness of buildings so that we can walk to the store and we can walk to the neighbor's home, but that look like Midtown Manhattan and it can look like downtown Mill Valley.
Let's have a debate about height and character that is really about how to build new development than enhances character, how to grow in that uniquely Marin way and make our county better. Let's leave behind the straw men and phantoms.