The Kowloon Manifesto

Because dense urbanism is good

The short version is: “fun way to say we need more dense urban housing”, but for the long version:

The Kowloon Walled City was a legal-grey-area turned cyberpunk refugee city in Hong Kong that held the record for the densest populated region in the world until it was demolished in 1994:

alt=”An aerial photo of the Kowloon Walled City taken in 1989. Organic masses of 1-story buildings clump and cluster tin a dense agglomeration, leaving shafts for air and light and a central chasm. The city is surrounded by a barren park and several skyscrapers which are sterilely rectangular in comparison.”1989 aerial photo of Kowloon Walled City by Ian Lambot, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

Its density clocked in at 1.93 million/km^2 - for comparison, Tokyo, for example, clocks in at 16,121.8/km^2, and is one of the denser modern cities on earth.

And the point is that the Kowloon Walled City was good. Like oh sure it was an ungoverned crime syndicate drug palace contorted into existence by the apathy or open hostility of the surrounding nation-states, but that’s not the fault of its city layout; its residents were better off having the city than not having it. Evidence is spotty but from what we have building safety was equal to that of the rest of Hong Kong, residents regarded it fondly, no major negative health effects occurred, and rents were far far cheaper.

We can of course do far far better than Kowloon; but the Kowloon Manifesto is the idea that modern societies are insanely afraid of population density for no reason. Many societies today - particularly the United States & Canada, though they are not alone - contort their urban landscapes against density, fostering car dependence, decayed public transport, and skyrocketing housing prices. Why we do so is very complex, but the end result is almost uniformly bad economically, socially, and environmentally. These policies are based on false and often self-serving justifications that don’t match the reality of life in actually-dense urban localities.

If you gave me the ability to snap a Kowloon into existence in the US today, I would easily do so - I can definitely do better as mentioned, its completely unnecessary to go this extreme, but faced with only that binary its an easy choice. For America the Kowloon Walled City is the utopian dream our desultory status quo can only aspire to, and the Kowloon Manifesto holds that virtually every step closer to that dream is one we should take. tumblr user centrally-unplanned

The Kowloon Manifesto

There should be at least three ridiculous superdense high rise hypercities per continent. tumblr user andmaybegayer

Corollaries of the Manifesto

An agenda of radical growth
Environmental justice, democratization, self-sufficiency, local government, self-sufficiency, and openness can be accomplished while growing the economy and population. It exists in opposition to degrowth agendas.1
Make your city dense today
Not in fifty years. Not in 20 years. Not in 10 years. Remove obstacles to density as fast as possible. Buy up empty lots of land, upzone them, and get rich by selling condos or apartments.
Build up, not out
Density is measured in people per square mile. Spreading people out horizontally makes the density number go down. Keeping people confined to ground level means they have no personal space. The only way to space people out while keeping density is to space people out vertically. The best way to do that is by building taller buildings.
Remove zoning barriers to density
The major obstacle to dense housing is that it’s illegal. This kind of smart, walkable, mixed-use urbanism is illegal to build in most American cities.2 Let’s make it legal.
Colocate transit and housing
Don’t surround your transit stations with unwalkable moats of parking lots. Build housing and jobs right next to the transit stations.3 Make it easy for everyone to walk to work.
Don’t need a car if walking is easy
If the place you’re going to is a five-minute walk away, you don’t need a car. A handcart is enough to carry all but the heaviest of items. You can walk to the grocery store and push your shopping cart home. You can walk to the doctor, or roll your wheelchair, or ride your bike, or push your kid in a stroller. You can walk to pick your children up from school. You can walk to pick up your grandfather’s meds from the pharmacist. Your half-blind grandfather can walk to pick up his own meds.
Make cars unnecessary
Cars take up space. Car roads can’t be used by pedestrians, wheelchair users, stroller-pushers, shopping carts, or by the most-efficient peoplemover known to humankind: the train. Cars take up space when they’re moving and when they’re stopped. Cars take up so much space.4 In areas with good transit, you do not need a car. And when you don’t need a car, that space can be used for something else.
Unnecessary cars means better land use
If you don’t need a car, you don’t need a spot to park a car. And that means you can use that space for things like restaurants, parks, schools, libraries, gyms, axe-throwing ranges, benches, bars, laundromats, public restrooms, bathhouses, combination bars and axe-throwing ranges, churches, churches sharing space with pool rooms, swimming pools, travel agencies, more housing — really anything else that isn’t parking.[
Don’t build parking garages
Parking garages are lazy solutions to the problem of cars. Build jobs and housing and stores colocated in the same building, so people don’t need to own a car.5
There are alternatives to cars
Walking. Scooters. Bicycles. Unicycles. Electric bicycles.6 Mopeds. Taxi. Bus. Tram. Metro. Train. Aeroplane. If you build alternatives to cars, you induce demand for alternatives to cars, and people will use these alternatives.7
Just ban cars
Banning cars will make your main streets much nicer, and will cause no problems.8 People prefer to live in car-free cities, anyways.9 And once you’ve started considering banning cars, you can think about the impacts of cars on society.10
Build more housing so it costs less
It’s basic economics: When supply increases and demand remains the same, the price declines until demand rises to meet it.11
Land values go up when you build dense
A half-acre lot with a four-bedroom house on it can be rented out as one dwelling unit. A half-acre lot with ten stories of four-bedroom houses on it can be rented out as ten dwelling units, in total earning more in rent than the one-bedroom house.
Density is good for the environment
Transit is more environmentally friendly than single-person cars, yeah. But you know what’s also environmentally friendly? Sharing a wall with your neighbors. It’s one more surface that heat can’t leak across. One more exterior wall you don’t have to heat in the winter. One more exterior wall you don’t have to cool in the summer.
Density supports functional transit
The easiest way to pay for transit is through fares charged by riders. The more riders per route-mile, the more fare revenue you get. Don’t remove a low-ridership transit line. Upzone around it so that the number of riders will increase.
Better transit means less traffic
Fewer people driving cars means fewer cars in traffic. The Netherlands has the best public transit and is also the best place to drive a car.If you like driving your car, you’ll like living in a place with less competition for the road.12
Density makes strong cities
More density means more tax revenue per square mile. Concentrating the population in fewer square miles means fewer linear miles of infrastructure like water and sewer and roads. Density lowers upkeep costs, while increasing money available to do upkeep.13

Density is good

The Kowloon Manifesto

The short version is: “fun way to say we need more dense urban housing” tumblr user centrally-unplanned

Tell Your Representatives

Call your representative. Have your bird deliver a tweet. Hire a singing telegraph. Employ your postal courier. Placard your representative’s office. Confront your representative, and say unto them:

"Replace parking lots with housing!"

References and recommendations

  1. “Degrowth is an idea that critiques the global capitalist system which pursues growth at all costs, causing human exploitation and environmental destruction. The degrowth movement of activists and researchers advocates for societies that prioritize social and ecological well-being instead of corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption. This requires radical redistribution, reduction in the material size of the global economy, and a shift in common values towards care, solidarity and autonomy. Degrowth means transforming societies to ensure environmental justice and a good life for all within planetary boundaries.”

  2. This Kind Of Smart, Walkable, Mixed-use Urbanism Is Illegal To Build In Most American Cities, Know Your Meme, 2022. 

  3. Watch Not Just Bikes’ America Always Gets This Wrong (when building transit) and Business Parks Suck (but they don’t have to)

  4. Want proof that cars take up too much space? Find your town in this map of surface parking lots in the United States. Look at how many surface lots there are. Imagine what your town could be like if those surface lots were instead medium-tall apartment/condo towers with offices and commercial space. Wayback Machine archival copy 

  5. Alan Fisher, the Armchair Urbanist: Parking Garages represent Lazy and Terrible Planning

  6. City Beautiful: E-Bikes Could Change Cities Forever

  7. Public transit consultant Jarrett Walker’s blog “Human Transit” covers the concept of induced demand with regards to transportation options in Induced Demand: An Axiom of Biology

  8. City Beautiful’s What Happened When They Banned Cars talks about how banning private vehicles on Market Street in San Francisco didn’t lead to traffic problems, and improved transit on-time arrival times. 

  9. People Hate the Idea of Car-Free Cities — Until They Live in One, 21 June 2022. Wayback Macine archival copy 

  10. What I Mean When I Say ‘Ban Cars’, Doug Gordon, Jalopnik, 29 June 2022 

  11. Alan Durning writes for the Sightline Institute in Yes, you can build your way to affordable housing: “The question left after examining Houston is not whether you can build your way to affordable housing, but whether you can do it without sprawling. The answer, again, is yes, you can.” The article goes on to talk about housing in Tokyo, where new supply is outpacing population growth, leading to decreased cost of housing. Chicago and Montreal are also densifying, and remain more affordable than peer cities. Singapore is an example of publicly-owned hosing. Germany is an example of national-scale privately-owned housing. They’re building more housing, and so housing is affordable. For a counterexample, see San Francisco, which has built so little new housing that it’s the most-expensive place to live in the US, where full-time employees of major employees are either homeless or commute hours to live someolace affordable. 

  12. “Most dutch cities have viable alternatives to driving for many trips, which reduces the number of cars on the road. In many cities, taking a bicycle is often the fastest way to get somewhere, because cyclists can usually take the shortest and most-direct route, while drivers need to take the long way around. You might think that this is bad for drivers, but it’s not, because if cycling wasn’t faster, many of these people would be in cars. And the streets would be so clogged with cars that the direct route would be even slower than the indirect route.” Not Just Bikes, The Best Country in the World for Drivers 

  13. The argument that density is good for cities’ finances is cleanly presented in Suburbia is Subsidized: Here’s The Math [Strong Towns 07] from Not Just Bikes. Higher tax incomes from dense urban areas provide a subsidy that covers essential infrastructure for low-density suburbs. Build dense cities, get more income. Then you can lower taxes: yay!