As you probably know, this site advocates for smart growth policies to help address the issues facing the city. A key aspect of smart growth is managing density, and on the surface, the city of Stockton has not planned very well in this regard. Specifically, Stockton has experienced an incredible proliferation of low density single family home development over recent years, which was one of the big reasons the city fell so hard when the housing bubble burst. But is Stockton really less dense the other cities? And is the solution a simple increase in density, cramming more people into tighter spaces?
When you look at it from a pure numbers standpoint, the Stockton area is actually pretty dense when compared to other metro areas. In 2002, Stockton ranked as the 10th most dense metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in the country, with about 4,218 people per square mile, ahead of areas like Chicago, Washington DC, and Denver. But using MSA’s is a bit misleading since Stockton’s MSA covers far fewer miles than the MSA’s of larger cities. However, when assessing just cities themselves, Stockton still ranks higher in density than anyone probably imagined. In 2011, the city of Stockton ranked as the 28th most dense city with a population over 250,000, averaging 4,730 residents per square mile, surpassing the density numbers of several major cities, including smart growth darling Portland, Oregon. These stats seem contradictory to many of the issues I have raised on this site. If Stockton is one of the worst offenders of sprawl, shouldn’t the city rank lower in terms of density?
Not necessarily, because density is just one characteristic of sprawl . Building strong communities involves many other factors outside of people per acre. Looking purely at density numbers overlooks critical aspects of smart growth as planning and building for higher densities alone cannot solve the issues facing the growth of Stockton.
As Kaid Benfield notes on his informative blog, sprawl is not identified by density alone. Many communities, including many in Stockton, exhibit high densities for the simple fact that almost all of the space is reserved for houses, many of which are squeezed on to tiny parcels to maximize home sales. Almost no parks, storefronts or office spaces are planned in these massive subdivisions. The result is development that does a great job of maximizing acreage for selling houses, but includes virtually no other amenities for miles. This may be “dense,” but it is still sprawl, and it is the wrong way to design a neighborhood.
Sensible planning and development includes not only higher densities, but close access to goods and services, greater street connectivity, and a variety of housing types. Without these other elements, a dense development is simply condensed sprawl. You may be cramming more houses per acre, but this high volume of residents remains isolated from the rest of the city and must still rely heavily on their cars to do anything.
For example, take the Glen Oaks townhouses just off of Thornton, across the street from Bear Creek High School. Built by Kimball Hill Homes, this development is very dense in comparison to the subdivisions surrounding it, and contributes to a higher person per acre average. Some of these homes even appear to use alleys for parking, moving cars to the back, increasing curb appeal, which is a big deal for new urbanists such as myself. But despite these features, Glen Oaks still qualifies as sprawl for a number of reasons. There are no amenities for miles, meaning that all residents of this area must rely on their cars just as much as those who live in much larger houses. Moreover, the street pattern of Glen Oaks and the surrounding developments limits both car and pedestrian access to adjacent areas. If someone in Glen Oaks wants to visit a friend in the subdivision immediately to the west, the street design forces that person to walk or drive a much greater distance.
Density does not help if the things you need for everyday life are still only accessible by car, which is the unquestioned way of life in Stockton. In North Stockton, if you have a craving for Starbucks, it will probably take a 30 minute round trip car ride to get your hands on a venti cappuccino. Likewise for getting to an ATM, grabbing a quick gallon of milk or going to the park.
The point is while subdivisions such as Glen Oaks contribute to higher densities, they are not necessarily better communities. While density is important to maximize the value of land, it doesn’t really work unless all the elements that make a neighborhood memorable are present. Greater street connectivity, proximity to retail and shopping, and a mixture of housing types are all key to creating better neighborhoods in Stockton. This kind of growth retains value better and creates a greater sense of place, something that is completely devoid in Stockton’s newer subdivisions. But while trends nationwide show consumers preferring better planned, walkable neighborhoods, real change won’t happen unless the city commits to planning better places for its citizens, both current and future.