A Worthy Project: A Narrative Social History of Crowding

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By Aaron Gilbreath

My name is Aaron Gilbreath. I’m an essayist and journalist based in Portland, Oregon, and I’m in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign for my current book project, Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet.

Why Crowding?

New York City
Photo by VinothChandar via photopin cc.

Be it sitting on a plane near a screaming baby, or brainstorming ways to organize your office cubicle, crowding touches most everyone’s life, because density is one of modernity’s defining issues. Even if you’ve never tried to articulate it, spatial requirements – of room, of silence, privacy and calm – form part of our definition of “the good life.” How far apart do you need to be from other people to find peace? How far apart do your living room walls need to be to feel comfortable? Even when we’re unaware of its influence, roominess is a condition, and the degree to which we have it determines livability. My book will argue that we need to treat overcrowding with the same gravity as other social and ecological issues, and take steps to manage it in a humane way that minimizes crowds’ dangers while capitalizing on their benefits. In the process, Crowded will test the counterintuitive principle that the smaller our home, the happier our life.

With the story driven by characters, scenes, action and dialogue, and rooted in solid reporting, Crowded qualifies as narrative nonfiction. The book is one urbanite’s vision of human history through the story of the crowd. The problem is: to write the proposal, I needed to do some preliminary reporting, and that required travel, and funding.

Why New York and Tokyo?

As the world becomes more urban, the size of many urban residences shrinks. Some are tight but serviceable, like the hundred-square-foot units in Hong Kong’s oldest public housing building. Some are inhumane, like the forty-square-foot subdivided rooms that an estimated 100,000 Hong Kong workers inhabit, spaces so small that The Atlantic says “they can only be photographed from above.” Other newer units in cities like Paris, Tokyo, and San Francisco are elegant and self-contained. These are the increasingly popular “micro-apartments.” Next to Michael Wolf’s photos of China’s residential high rises, micro-apartments’ compact interiors, which range from 150 to 400 square feet, provide one of the iconic images of our time, the embodiment of human resilience in the face of stifling limitations.

Chic efficiencies already exist or are under construction in Seattle, Hong Kong, Vancouver, San Diego, Chicago, Australia, and Montreal. At the end of 2013, construction will begin on New York City’s first micro-apartment building, My Micro NY, on East 27th. With a move-in date of 2015, the pilot project is part of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC campaign, a sweeping push to equip the City for its changing economy, aging infrastructure, lack of affordable one- and two-person housing, and the million additional residents expected to arrive by 2030. Up to a third of them will be single. The architectural experiment could revolutionize real estate, demographics, and urban planning in the City and set nationwide precedents. The world will be watching.

Learn more about Aaron’s important project at:



Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and Brick, articles for Oxford American and Virginia Quarterly Review, and fiction for the likes of Terrain.org. Find him online at aarongilbreath.wordpress.com.

Crowded planet image courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.