Public Comment

Density, Schmensity

By Albert Sukoff
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:32:00 PM

Sometimes when a large majority of a group holds the same opinion, the opinion takes on the aura of fact. It can even become a group mantra. Such is the case with the supposed fact that “Berkeley is dense.” 

In the February 12–18 issue of the Planet, Richard Brenneman, in his article on SB 375, reiterated our municipal mantra with some supporting statistics. He compared Berkeley’s density at 9,822 persons per square mile with the San Francisco/Oakland metropolitan area at 7,004 and the LA area at 7,068. Wow, Berkeley is 40 percent denser! Well, of course it is. Comparing a central city to a metropolitan area is misleading if not downright disingenuous. This is worse than comparing apples and oranges; it is more like comparing apples and fruit salad.  

More accurate would be to compare Berkeley with other core communities that lie in the shadow of their namesake central city. Near New York City, Union City, NJ, has a population density of 52,978 per square mile, well over five times that of Berkeley. West New York, Hoboken, Passaic, Cliffside Park, and Irvington, all also in New Jersey, have densities between 20,000 and 45,000 persons per square mile. In the LA area, Maywood, Cudahy, Huntington Park, West Hollywood, Bell Gardens, Lawndale, Hawaiian Gardens, Bell, Linwood, Hawthorne, South Gate and Hermosa Beach all have densities of more than 13,000, i.e., they are about one-and-a-half-times greater than Berkeley or denser. Maywood is over 23,000. Even in the Bay Area, where San Francisco has the greatest density (16,433), Berkeley is not second as is often assumed. Daly City has a density of 13,704, or 40 percent above that of Berkeley.  

Density is in some ways an arbitrary extension of the capricious way in which municipal boundaries are drawn. If Tilden Park was within rather than abutting the city limits of Berkeley, the city’s density would drop in half and yet nothing would be different. In that sense, the density of a city within a major metropolitan area is meaningless. In terms of the feel and function of urban life, we live in a metropolitan area. 

Consider Berkeley fifty years ago when many would say it was a more livable community. The density was about the same as now, but the Bay Area had half as many people. Berkeley’s density doesn’t matter nearly so much as that of the whole Bay Area.  

Objective measures of density notwithstanding, “too dense” is really a matter of opinion. Many, if not most residents, of Berkeley may think the town is too dense, but I could argue the opposite with equal justification. The 1955 Master Plan called for a population of 150,000 and expected Berkeley to house over 200,000 people well before now. This was not considered alarming. Berkeley’s population was 102,743 in 2000, almost identical to its 1990 population (102,774) but down from 103,328 in 1980 and 116,716 in 1970. The American Community Survey, an effort by the Census Bureau using sampling techniques, estimated the city’s current population at 90,432. If this is true—it does seem questionable—the population is down by almost a quarter from its 1970 level. However, even with a greater population forty years ago, Berkeley felt no more dense then than it does now (my opinion).  

A Berkeley with 200,000 people might be less livable than what we now have but not necessarily. Greater density has its advantages. Localized public transportation, which generates a whole lot of talk but no transport, would be facilitated by greater density. It is notable that Manhattan is virtually the only community in this country where even the well-to-do are more likely to not own a car. It is the extreme density of Manhattan (over 100,000 per square mile) that makes that the case. Adequate public transit and density are a chicken-and-egg phenomenon. However, whichever comes first, they continue to support and enhance each other. It is interesting that Mahattanization is a pejorative in the Bay Area and yet virtually every true urbanite I know loves Manhattan. 

It takes hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, living in relative proximity to each other, to support the many diverse cultural and economic opportunities we treasure here in the Bay Area. San Francisco alone has built four new museums in the last few years. The Bay Area has two MLB teams and two NFL teams. Count the universities. Name a hundred restaurants worthy of your business. Marvel at the recreational opportunities. Only a large and prosperous community has the critical mass necessary to support these things. Density brings some inherent problems, but it is also responsible for all that is wonderful about urban living.  

Arguably, Berkeley should encourage people who work and/or attend school in Berkeley to live here. More people is not nearly so great a problem as more cars, but surely there are ways to encourage population growth without a concomitant growth in traffic. UC has become much more a commuter school rather than the residential campus it used to be. Rent control has reduced the density of all rental housing and denied students access to apartments that would turn over on a regular basis were it not for bargain rents to which city law entitles long-term tenants. Not facilitating more population in Berkeley as a matter of city policy (or at least city politics) is nimbyism born of selfishness. There is no reason Berkeley could not comfortably house 150,000 or even 200,000 people and be a more interesting and dynamic place as a result. You can touch your index fingers to your thumbs and chant “Berkeley is too dense” all you want, but the truth of the matter (okay, my truth) is that Berkeley is not all that dense and density is not all that bad.  


Albert Sukoff is a Berkeley resident.