The Density Dilemma: The relationship between population density and lifestyle
There are unlimited numbers of inverse relationships in the world in which we live. An inverse relationship simply means that as one factor goes up, another goes down. There are many easy to understand examples related to economic theory. If Interest rates go up, borrowing goes down, and if interest rates go down, borrowing tends to go up. If supply of a popular consumer product goes up you’ll see piles of them on discount racks at walmart. If supply is constrained then check eBay and you will see lot’s of people making significant bank. It’s not just economics and business, it’s all over life too. The more loose the high school girl’s reputation is, the more high school boys will show interest. The more she talks about saving herself for her husband, the less dates she’ll get. Side note: I’m seriously considering teaching my two year old daughter to say ‘I’m saving myself for my husband’ to use when she has to go to the bathroom. I figure if she raises her hand in her high school classes and says “Can I be excused, I’m saving myself for my husband”, several times a day, even the most thick headed teenage boys will get the hint. Hopefully, that means I’ll have less problems in about 14 years.
There is another inverse relationship. It’s one I learned when moving from the city/suburbs, to the country, then to the exurbs. If if you are not familiar with the term, exurbs are sort of an in-between area. This inverse relationship is between density and quality of life. I’ve been thinking of it as the density dilemma. In short, the density dilemma means the quality of life maintains an inverse relationship to population density. Ok, that’s a really nice academic sounding rule, but what does it mean in practice? Since there was so much to cover I decided to try and narrow down this article to three areas: 1) The cost of organization 2) Physical Space and 3) Career and Financial opportunity.
1) The Cost of Organization and Engagement:
There is definately a direct corollary relationship between the need for organization and population density. If you have a single country road with ten or even fifty cars a day that travel to and from work on it, then a two lane paved road is all you need. In some instances, gravel roads would do fine. In urban areas traffic planners have to plan for numbers like an average of 1900 vehicles per hour per lane. That requires paved roads, lights, engineering resources, regular maintenance of the roads, planning for the traffic disruption during the maintenance periods, tax programs to pay for it all, proportioning resources, etc. That’s just the roads, what about all the different things the roads connect to including: business, community infrastructure, housing and pretty much everything else. All of that density requires much higher levels of organization. The infrastructure required to be so organized costs money, that money comes from the people using it in the form of taxes. It’s not a big surprise that costs are higher.
Let’s personalize it a bit. If you have a child in daycare, the informal in-home daycare option is still alive and well. I’m sure technically there are some regulations, but the reality is that if your country neighbor who also goes to your local church watches your kids they don’t have to get a license. In the more dense areas finding a neighbor who is available to do this is rarer. It’s hard to hide the in-home daycare when the provider is in a subdivision and you have hundreds of neighbors who watch the daily drop off and pickups. Someone is bound to call the daycare oversight agency that will require all sorts of training, infrastructure modifications, and licensing. That comes at a cost. A cost that gets passed on to the parents. To put this in perspective, In my community the rural in-home daycare provider is $400 — $500 a month. There are many $800 to $1200 a month daycares just twenty minutes away in the dense suburbs. I didn’t even touch on the uniformity and limitations that’s required by regulation. Ms. Neighbor may not care if Jr. has an upset stomach and a little diarrhea today, but the licensed facility has to maintain its certification. That means Jr. is not allowed to go to the daycare for 24 to 48 hours if he shows signs of being sick. Mom and/or Dad not only have to pay for a service they aren’t using but they also have to figure out alternate care for the child. The neighbor lady who watches kids on the side has much more in common with a grandma than a daycare. The flip side is that if an employee gets sick at the high priced daycare they usually have a backup, not so much with informal neighbor childcare.
These are two easy to understand examples but there are countless others at very high levels and down to the micro levels. You can see it in the country town hall where everyone knows the name of the right person to talk to for most services, to the large city government organization with different departments spread over a twenty mile geographical area. You can immediately park on the side of the road in the quaint country down town to go into the dollar general, or you can spend twenty minutes driving up and down one way streets looking for an available and unrestricted metered space. In the end more people simply means more resources are required for organization and organizational infrastructure, yet there are more services available. Resources needed directly translates to more costs for everyone involved and greater standardization in what services is offered.
2) The Availability of Space:
People have more space in less dense areas. More space translates into more land, larger homes and access to raw nature. Ask anyone who loves camping and it may be difficult to get them to stop talking about the the benefits of nature. I personally experience nature regularly on my property. Just in the last few days I’ve seen, fish, deer, box turtles, snapping turtles (these are very different creatures if your not familiar with the different species of turtles), snakes, wild turkeys, fox, uncounted colorful birds and bugs, etc… I will admit that some of these experiences can be a little trying. For example several deer leaping away quickly goes from a serene sight to major annoyance if you happen to have just planted a large garden or have an aversion to deer ticks in your yard. The reality is that for the most part access to these animals as well as the flaura and fauna are quite soothing and do help your frame of mind and stress levels. If you don’t have a background living in the country or are not really an outdoorsy type person, then the best way I can describe it is this: If you have ever been to a spa where there is soft new age music playing, the sounds of water from a trickling fountain and scents floating in the air from incense or pungent flower arrangements, then there is a good chance the manufactured environment helped some of your stress lessen. It’s that feeling of decompression and de-stressing that you can get every time you walk around outside when living in the deep country.
It’s easy to see the exact opposite happen the more urban you go. The greater the density the more people you have to fit in finite spaces. Older suburbs or those in moderately dense areas will have yards of half an acre, the yards get progressively smaller to the point where you have zero lot line. After that, the single family home disappears and you wind up in multi-family buildings. What’s better, having to bang on the roof with a broomstick to get the point across to the condo on the floor above you that they are being too loud or only seeing your neighbor’s house in the distance, during the the winter when the leaves have fallen off all the trees between the two properties? Yes, there are absolutely those who prefer highly dense and smaller spaces. For example there is the social butterfly personality who loves sitting on the stoop in the city so they can talk to all the passers by. There is also the example of the retiree who would much prefer to have very little to worry about so they choose a condo over a home with land. That being said, I would argue that land pricing increasing as density increases is proof that most people prefer having more personal space if they can.
3) Career and Financial Opportunity:
This one is arguably the biggest point of conflict and it’s the one that interweaves with everything else. When I say opportunity I’m talking about careers. With density, comes more business. With more business comes more available jobs at every level. Think of it this way, if there are five jobs available, and your looking what is the chances you’ll be a good match for one of them? What if there are fifty jobs, what are the odds? Yes, there may be 10x or more job seekers to go along with the 10x increase in jobs, but the odds of a match are much higher. The larger number of organizations mean that in addition to more open positions, in theory, more potential opportunities for higher income and promotions to higher levels. You not only have more opportunity for jobs, but in our modern flexible workforce based economy, that opportunity ultimately translates to more time on the job. This is especially true if you are in a field with heavy turnover. Remember what I just said about the more opportunity for making a match?
The problem with density, as I have already discussed is that you may earn more, but to be closer to this opportunity cost you more. More in work related expenses like daycare, transportation (including toll roads and taxes in addition to higher cost fuel and repairs) and of course, more in overall living expenses. You can make more, yes, but it gets eaten up quickly. Much more quickly than in the rural environments.
What the perfect model?
In a perfect world, you would have a foundation of a high income vs. a low cost of living. High is relative based on where you are located and depending on the cost of living that area. In a rural environment a moderate income can offer a very high quality lifestyle. As a personal example, A few years back I was in a bottom level administrative role for a government agency. These are not highly paid positions. Yet, for where I lived, and how I managed my money, several times I was told that the people around me considered my wife and I to be ‘rich’. Sadly that’s not my situation now but it was the genesis of my thoughts on the density dilemma. I can only imagine what people would have thought if I had an average income for a dense urban environment. This can be done.
The connected world in which we live in means that ½ of the equation of quality of life, can be met in the rural areas if your savvy. The first step is to actually be connected. If you live in a rural areas you know what I mean. Right now i’m writing this on an internet connection of 512kbps. To reiterate I only get ½ a megabyte and I was told by my internet provider that I should consider myself lucky because right before I moved in, they only offered dial up. A while back I used my blog as a platform to lament this and other aspects of broadband in rural communities. Those words are as true today as they were when I wrote them. So step one to perfection is finding one of those very very rare pieces of rural land that includes significant connectivity options by a local provider. They do exist.
Once connected then you have the ability to do two things, you can get money and get the stuff that money brings. I’ll start with the easy part, stuff: It wasn’t too long ago that one of the major attractions of dense areas was the shopping. The more shops that competed, the more they tried to have unique products to differentiate themselves. These days, most specialty retail is online and these web based merchants are falling all over themselves to make buying online as easy as walking into a store and picking something up. You are literally one click away from anything that can be packaged and shipped, and if you don’t like it, returns are just another click away.
Money is a little trickier but not impossible. As the organizations that professionals work for become more decentralized there is much more ability to work remotely. Typically this means that you have to work somewhere in the ‘home office’ for a while, or be within a commute of the home office for meetings. In many cases you can start to do most of your work remotely, especially as the company feels confident in your abilities and work ethic. CAD / CAM, Video work, administration tasks, really any business support service can be done remotely as long as the organization trusts you and believes in the benefits of telework. The trick to this is to have a job that pays like you live close to the office located in the urban center, but live in the country where 10 acres can cost less than a used F-150. Irony point: I get that if you have 10 acres, it may be beneficial to spend the cash and get a heavy duty pickup and that adds expenses. Regardless, getting that job takes planning and effort, and as always, a big helping of luck.
There is one problem that I don’t have a good answer for. That’s the issue of easy access to enriching life experiences. Going back to the small town model of a town center with a dollar store, a single mexican restaurant, a single pizza place, and maybe, if your lucky, a restaurant that has Betty Sue as the waitress, your not exactly going to run into great culinary works inspired by varied world cultures. The number of museums and attractions is also going to be limited as they all have to be located within a reasonable drive from whatever micro town you live in. This isn’t to say that there won’t be things to do. There is always the local high school football game, the local church events, and the annual town festivals but all of those experiences will fit nicely in the monoculture of the less dense. Your not going to see the chinese dancers, or the 70’s art rock act come to your home town on a tour. Your not going to get a touring broadway broadway show, and in fact you can count yourself lucky if there is a community theater within driving distance.
You can try and workaround it. If you have great connectivity you can have rich online experiences like a virtual museum tour or simulated sitting in a cafe in paris. Unfortunately we aren’t at the point of the holodeck yet and these are poor substitutes to the real thing. If you want to personally have, or give your kids, enriching experiences you have to get up, leave town, and go someplace that has them. That can get expensive and time consuming. Right now, there is no other options.
Like many of my articles, the conclusion comes down to personal preference. The Density Dilemma means you get an arguably better quality of life, but you give up options and opportunities. Country life is slower, the people are friendlier and less competitive. The entire experience is more personal and connected to those around you. An advantage with our ever more connected world means that you can even achieve some of the benefits of the dense urban environments if you are careful about access to, and use of, your digital link to the rest of the world. Urban areas provide more culture, more variety, and more opportunity but there are costs in stress with dealing with the higher levels of competition and the fundamental organizational needs of the dense areas.
I run into people often who say ‘I could never live in the country, there is nothing to do and i’d be bored out of my mind’ and others who say ‘people are way too close in those subdivisions, I’d go crazy and shoot someone if I lived there’. Now that I have lived in both of these environments, I can honestly say I envy them. They are all-in on their choice and have learned to accept not having the alternative benefits provided by the alternate lifestyle. I am still conflicted in that I want the best of all worlds because I can’t decide on prioritizing the very strong pro’s and con’s to both lifestyles. That’s why it’s a dilemma.
I guess an ideal world would be to have access to both, either with multiple homes or some unique combination of solutions that provides access. That, of course, is a very tall order and one that few mid-career professionals can afford, which I guess makes it another variant on the Density Dilemma.
Article Coda: This was one of those articles that got really unwieldy and it’s current form is cut down substantially from what I originally wrote. Their are so many factors relating to work and life as it intersects to population density that trying to quantify them all and extrapolate the important points for an engaging narrative became impractical. I intend to revisit this subject in a future article or series of articles and would welcome commentary or suggestions as it relates the Density Dilemma.
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