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I Dream of Densiteries: A Nighttime Vision

TONGUE-IN- POLITICAL-CHEEK--To use the words of the great Swedish bard Cornelis Vreeswijk: ”Last night, my friends, I dreamed a dream I never dreamed before.” 

After a restless night, I awoke, sat up straight in my bed and had the uncanny experience of remembering word-for-word an article I had read in my sleep in the Planning Report, hyperlinks and all.  With the aid of a mystic photographic memory which I have never had before and will likely never have again, I was able to transcribe this article verbatim, and in so doing to create a record for posterity. 

Please find a faithful transcription.  Make of it what you will …

Using dead zones to combat California’s housing crisis

By Sen. Scott Wiener (D-Colma)

“Life is for the alive my dear.“

–– Stephen Sondheim

Urban planners have long been faced with a somewhat sensitive dilemma. Cities are built for and evolve with the needs of living human beings in mind. And yet society remains faced with the question of what to do about the issues created by the fact that, despite increasing longevity, people continue to die at an alarming pace.  Almost 70 years ago, the American Society of Planning Officials concisely elucidated the problem: “we have already reached the point at which the distribution of land between the living and the dead is a serious problem.”

In my younger years, when we would drive by Wissinoming and pass by the Mt. Carmel cemetery and I would ask how many dead people were there, my Aunt Edna would always answer: “All of them.” Even though her repeated answer may have eventually gotten me to stop asking the question, it did not cause me to stop thinking about the implications of cemeteries from an urban planning perspective, especially as I became more involved with housing issues and urban planning.

California’s acute housing crisis has made a discussion of this subject and its policy implications even more urgent. In short, cemeteries take up large and sometimes not insignificant swaths of land that could be better devoted to other uses such as housing. 

Leading the way as it usually does, almost a century ahead of its time, San Francisco in the 1920s collectively made an urban planning decision which made it clear that the land within the city previously devoted to cemeteries would be better used for other purposes.

As progressive for the US as this decision was, it is certainly not unprecedented within the annals of urban planning.  In English case law, Gilbert v Buzzard from 1820, Sir William Scott writes about “the beneficial uses of the living” vs. “the barren preservation of the dead.”  Singapore continues its policy of disinterment to make way for more modern land uses.  Graveyards have been and continue to be transformed from dead zones to areas which serve the living, such as parks or housing.  If in other countries, the graveyard to housing paradigm sometimes occurs on a smaller scale, we need to be much bolder in our efforts within the Golden State.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, from the standpoint of density, cemeteries represent an incredibly efficient use of land. Cemetery density translated to human density would be the equivalent of anywhere between 750,000 to 1.5 million individuals per square mile, an urbanist’s dream.  However living individuals tend to be more demanding than dead ones and these levels of ideal density are unfortunately not something we can ever expect to achieve with urban planning for the living.

Nonetheless, areas which up to now have been zoned and used for cemeteries present some of the best opportunities to densify in areas faced by severe undersupplies of housing.

Colma, a city I now proudly represent, presents an example of land which can be transformed to help address our state’s housing affordability crisis. Covering less than two square miles, Colma currently is home to around 1700 living souls and over 1.5 million life-challenged ones. In other words its time serving the departed in the face of California’s current crisis should itself soon be dead.

With its prime location close to the City and the Valley, Colma, with some visionary urban planning, could be transformed into a node of density which could serve as a major solution to the Bay Area’s housing crisis. While other cities with cemeteries need to follow suit, Colma could serve as the first of these “densiteries,” which would provide housing opportunities for actual, living human beings on property which previously hadn’t created a single unit of housing, affordable or otherwise.

If we look down the road to Los Angeles, which itself faces major housing challenges, we see there are vast and significant areas of land which are underused, that is to say not used at all for housing and which could help solve Southern California’s housing affordability crisis. Forest Lawn has seven locations throughout Southern California, with over 300 acres in the original, Glendale location alone.  The Inglewood Park Cemetery offers 200 acres for housing development, while Mount Sinai, in addition to its location next to Forest Lawn’s Hollywood Hills site, has an additional 160 acres in Simi Valley, just to name a few examples of opportunity sites, spread throughout Southern California.  Rose Hills in Whittier has a whopping 1400 acres, which is almost three times the total acreage of the entire Disneyland Resort and larger than the entire city of West Hollywood.  Once the remains of the dead are disposed with, the urban planning possibilities for dense, vibrant developments to add to the housing supply are almost endless, and extremely exciting from an urban planning perspective.

The Los Angeles National Cemetery has over 100 acres, ripe for development to create more housing supply on Los Angeles’s housing challenged westside. The Federal cemetery could be transformed into a densitery which would reserve a large portion of housing for our veterans. Even San Francisco, which led the way with eliminating the — at least for the living – inefficient land use of cemeteries, has a major opportunity in the federal cemetery at the Presidio, which itself could be transformed into a prominent 9-acre densitery within city limits.  (The Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno would offer an even bigger opportunity for Bay Area urban housing development with its 161 acres).

NIMBYism from current cemetery inhabitants would presumably not be nearly as much of a problem as from living neighborhood NIMBYs. A bigger problem might be living relatives, bound by mythic tradition and backward-looking paradigms.

However, before anyone tries to use “respect for the fallen” in an attempt to defend regressive policies and taint the utility of densiteries or as an excuse not to address our housing crisis, let me make it clear that we could create suitable tributes — which could include a whole new class of virtual monuments, gravestones and crypts — to honor the departed, including veterans, while engaging in real world solutions to help the living, including those who haven’t yet moved to California.

Traditional burial and cremation also have a tremendous negative impact on our carbon footprint and are extremely detrimental to the environment.  Because of the state’s interest in promoting efficiency of land use as well as in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the state legislature should pass laws mandating resomation, composting or environmentally friendly cremation, while those who insist on traditional burials which contribute to climate change and waste land on the basis of superstition and fairytales would be permitted to find a suitable plot in a less progressive state. 

There are further reasons to transform land currently zoned for cemetery use into housing.  Mandating green disposal of the departed would serve to kill three birds with one stone, if you’ll permit the metaphor.  As Jessica Mitford wrote in her seminal work, “The American Way of Death,” the funeral industry takes advantage of our sentimentalized view of death and preys upon grieving families, often using unscrupulous methods to extract as much revenue as possible.  Those concerned with the rise in housing costs will be shocked to note the increased cost of funerals: on average they have increased an astounding 1328% in just four decades, which is almost 3 and a half times the comparable CPI increase.   As of five years ago, funerals were a $20+ billion a year industry.  Think of all the wasted resources and imagine if just half that amount could be given to developers and other construction corporate citizens, allowing them to build, baby, build. 

Consequently, once my landmark legislation mandating density and eliminating single-family housing (another immoral and racist waste of space) passes in the upcoming legislative session, I will be working with our corporate partners to craft an appropriate bill to allow them to address our housing and climate crises with resources currently devoted to the dead, who indisputably have no need for housing.
Life is for the alive. It’s high time we attuned our land use policy to acknowledge this reality. The creation of densiteries throughout the state is a responsible, effective and cutting-edge solution to one of our state’s most (ahem) grave problems.

Scott Wiener is a California state senator, representing District 11, which includes Colma and all of San Francisco.  Senator Wiener is a graduate of Duke University and Harvard Law School.  He is a devotee of author Richard Rothstein, who believes that single family housing is immoral and racist; Senator Wiener was the California Building Industry Association (CBIA) 2017 legislator of the year, and according to Dan Dunmoyer, president and CEO of the CBIA: “What Ajit Pai is to the telecom industry, Scott Wiener is to developers.”  Funding from developers continues to make up the lion’s share of Senator Wiener’s campaign cash, prompting Dunmoyer to say of Senator Wiener: “He’s our guy.” 

And so, the dream and the article ended.  After having read the last word and in a cold sweat, I awoke to find myself among the living with the melody of Cornelis’s song, with altered lyrics (and in English), ringing in my head.  It painted a very different picture from the dream article.  Such was the genius of Cornelis that even in the darkest times and faced with the realities of the most rampant abuses of crony capitalism, he could inspire a vision for a better future: 

“Last night, my friend, I dreamed a dream I never dreamed before.

And oligarchs here weren’t in charge and no one studied war.

And corporations -- sorry folks -- aren’t people as they teach.

And senators aren’t bought and sold, and money isn’t speech.

And tolerance throughout the state let people live and let live.

And profiteers could change their ways, stopped taking, started to give.

Let’s fight now for diversity, let’s work on ways to unite,

And celebrate Community; that’s what I dreamed last night.” 

(John Mirisch is currently serving his third term as Mayor of the City of Beverly Hills. John is an occasional contributor to CityWatch.)

-cw