Sit in on some meetings of civic associations or area commissions in Columbus and you’re likely to get an earful from homeowners warning of the density that will devour our communities in waves of new development. We’ve seen it at the former Giant Eagle site on Whittier Street in German Village, on Oak Street in Olde Towne East, and frequently, and for years, in the University District. We’ve also seen it across the country as cities such as Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle – and the state of California – have loosened laws that restricted large swaths of cities to single-family homes only. The goal is to create more apartments to meet a growing demand for housing.
The alarm about density has turned those seven letters into a four-letter word. The acronym “NIMBY” is applied to those who recognize that new houses and apartments must be built somewhere – but Not In My Backyard.
Density, however, is an elusive term.
It usually refers to the number of people residing per square mile (or census tract). In the case of development in suburban areas, it often means units per acre – the number of houses and/or apartments, on average per acre, throughout a subdivision. Occasionally, it may look at residents per acre. Some measures of density look at the footprints of buildings, or the numbers of beds, or parking spaces.
Zoning codes often include maximum requirements on floor-area ratio (the number of square feet on all floors of a building in proportion to the square footage of the entire lot), and minimums on the number of parking spaces per unit (or per bedroom). In the University District, a measurement of interest is the number of beds per unit – given that most leases are based on that. Limits on the number of parking spaces per bed and the height of buildings in various parts of Columbus are not exactly measurements of density, but they are a frequent focus of neighborhoods and area commissions.
The reality is that Columbus is not a dense place – and, in fact, it had been growing less dense for decades.
In 1950, Columbus had 375,000 people in a 40-square-mile area. Then the city’s aggressive, decades-long annexation policy added 186 square miles of rural and suburban land. Today, more than 906,000 Columbus residents are spread across a total of 226 square miles. The result is that the citywide density (4,007 people per square mile in 2019) is a fraction of the 1950 density (9,375 per square mile) -- and even in the older traditional neighborhoods, within the 1950 boundaries, population per square mile dropped almost 30 percent, to 5,870 per square mile in 2019.
Within the 1950 boundaries – Downtown, German Village, Near East Side, King-Lincoln/Bronzeville, Driving Park, Franklinton, Hilltop, Fifth by Northwest, Linden, Milo-Grogan, Victorian and Italian Villages, University District, Clintonville and other neighborhoods – today’s population is 140,000 less than it was in 1950. There are many factors for this:
Redlining. Federal policy, and the practices of private lenders, drew red lines on maps in the 1930s to identify low-income (and especially Black-owned) properties as investment risks. These also tended to be densely populated areas because Black residents were excluded from most places. Because financing was not available, many of those homes deteriorated.
Thousands of those homes that survived redlining were demolished for highway construction and urban renewal – based on maps that, of course, largely matched the redlining maps. Urban-renewal land-clearance, along with the construction of interstate highways and interchanges, hacked through vast swaths of the urban landscape – turning tax-paying properties into tax-sucking concrete.
Parking requirements. Because the zoning code required a certain number of parking spaces – based on numbers of occupants in new Downtown office towers – dozens of acres of historic buildings were demolished for parking lots. Sleek new skyscrapers appeared, but the surrounding surface was scraped clean as hundreds of small businesses, and thousands of residents in houses and apartment buildings, were forced to move out of the urban core.
The steady shrinking of household and family sizes is a decades-long trend that continued the de-densifying wrought by such urban trauma. Even in neighborhoods that did not lose housing over the years – such as Clintonville – the population dropped. A household with two or three kids now takes up the same space (maybe with a second bathroom added) occupied 60 years ago by Mom, Dad, six kids and maybe Grandma. And when the kids grow up, fewer get married at 22 and start families of their own. They live alone in an apartment somewhere, or with a roommate or two. The number of households keeps rising even as family sizes shrink.
An exception remains for immigrants and refugees, who – as newcomers have done for centuries – tend to live with extended families in crowded apartments as they gain footing in a new land.
We have a complex heritage that begat our complex present, and we should not base our civic engagement on a single misunderstood word.
Brian Williams is a consultant and freelance writer. A former Columbus Dispatch reporter, he is retired from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.