Dear Strong Towns readers,
Yesterday was a big day for me. I didn't need to wear mitts for the first time since November, which means I can operate my camera outside for longer than 10 minutes. I will be celebrating by riding the bus out to a strange and frustrating landscape of density-gone-wrong.
This will be the setting for a video about density and by extension, silly apartment locations. It's an important topic, and I would love your help making an excellent script. What do you say?
Another buzzword contextualized
Density antagonizes like few other words in an urban development agenda. People love to have a fierce opinion on density even though it's virtually impossible to even know what it means. Density looks and feels mighty different depending on urban form, so there is no consistent qualitative measure to the term. Plus, the history of urban planning is littered with epic casualties in the name of solving density (low or high), so you'd think we'd be more humble.
It's clear that low density development is an inefficient use of infrastructure. Research also corroborates that high density development can have the positive social, environmental, and economic effects we associate with compact cities. But as we know well at Strong Towns, there is a real danger in making density a goal rather than an outcome. You end up with a lot of misguided and underperforming development. And I want to film that.
For reference, I attempted to do a similar thing with the term walkability last year.
Where I'm coming from
There are a few motives for this video:
- I have misunderstood density in the past to the extent that I would have undoubtedly advocated silly things. If it helps others dodge that misfortune, this video will be a success.
- I have a bone to pick with a number of developments close to home. There are many places I care about where the ideas of density and urbanity have been entirely disconnected in most new housing development. As Andres Duany always says, "You cannot have the townhouse without the town." Instead, I keep seeing mega-apartment blocks built in completely un-walkable areas, and yet they are lauded because "density." I don't know how these developments keep happening, but maybe if the general public sees how short-sighted they are, the madness will stop.
- The usual arguments about density are tiresome. If this video is nothing else but fodder for better arguments, that would be satisfying too.
Keep in mind, I am making this video for people who don't immerse themselves in urbanism blogs. It also has to be under four minutes.
Here are a bunch of thoughts I've written down in my notebook that will be morphing into a script soon. Which thoughts resonate with you and what would you add? See you in the comments.
"In this video, I want to talk about density and the silly things it makes us think and do..."
Going back to grade school, we know that density=mass/volume. In plain-speak, how much stuff is there in one spot. Cities generally use this word to describe how many people live per unit area, like 12 households per acre. So higher density implies that you will have more neighbours close by, and past a certain point, you end up with a taller city. The boogeymen of higher density (crowds, tall buildings, "those people") make a lot of people cranky. Let's discuss.
What is the point of density:
- Some people would rather trade off quantity of domestic space for quality of city space.
- Some people are trying to have a lower environmental and infrastructural footprint by living in more efficient arrangements.
- Some people cannot afford or do not need a large living space.
So density can be a tool:
- To build an excellent urban environment by concentrating people and activities that make the place vibrant.
- To physically shape our streets, making the city feel enclosed, cozy, and secure (eyes on the street)
- To make the most of urban land, saving on infrastructure bills and generating higher tax revenues for the city. For the planet at large, it means we're not being wasteful with the finite and precious land that we have.
- To open up the city to people of different ages, life stages, wants, needs, and means. Without this, you will have a banal place that exists only for a narrow group of people. For example, even if I wanted to, I couldn't afford to live in the suburban neighbourhood where I grew up. It's a place where the young do not come home. However, my current neighbourhood is the happy home of students, families, seniors, new immigrants, couples, singles, and small businesses, all across income brackets. I could find a home here for the rest of my life. Density is a feature and tool to make this great neighbourhood possible.
- Even smart people are still arguing about the ideal density. It's usually clumped in with some sort of minimum ridership needed to make transit viable, but this is more of a mental math shortcut than a rule.
- It's really hard to apply equations to cities, because cities are more biology than physics. You are further ahead trying to understand cellular parts and interaction than numbers that rule them all.
- Let's take a moment to make clear that the desire to live in a big home full of stuff we bought is a purely cultural thing. A lot of people genuinely don't want a big house, car, garage, and flat screen tv. Instead, they would rather spend their money on experiences and their time on their feet (not in a vehicle). This lifestyle conveniently ends up being great for local businesses and is much cheaper for the city to accommodate. This is a good thing. We should all want more of it.
- Density is not medicine we have to take to keep our sprawling cities alive. It is something many people want, demand, and expect from any place worth living in. Unforced, density is a tell-tale sign of success because it indicates people actually want to be in a place. When we talk about density as though it's life-support for our sprawly, boring places, we miss the key point that density is one of our best tools to build loveable places.
THAT SAID, Don't get carried away...
- I'm not an architectural snob, but I will be highly critical of where you put that building. It's a 50 year investment, so it better be in the right spot.
- Far flung apartments give the illusion of providing affordable, efficient housing, but... wrong.
- These buildings [refer to StreetView above] might sit on a relatively small parcel of land plus large parking lots, but there's more to the picture. The city actually had to lay waste to a ton of land to get here, building fast roads and underused infrastructure. In doing so, we encourage more low density development in this area, which has become an island only accessible by car. This means it's not actually affordable at all because every independent adult who lives in these buildings needs a vehicle as their ticket out of there! There goes $10,000/year.
- Again, this is not necessarily a problem with the building itself and certainly not a problem with the inhabitants who decided to live there. This is a problem with where these buildings are placed.
- Even a plain-jane building can play an important role contributing to the city around it. For example, would you guess that this building has been adding life to the city for 100 years? There is nothing particularly special about this building. It's just in the right spot, and acts as a good neighbour to other buildings and the street itself. If you took this exact same building and plopped it out on some exurban 50mph road next to a bus stop, you can bet it would not be a 100 year investment that makes the city stronger. It would actually be a liability, costing the city much more than it contributes. Yet this is what we do with new apartment buildings in many cities and it is defeating the purpose.
What's Your Wisdom on Density?
Well, that's what I've got so far. Looking forward to puzzling over this with you all. Thanks in advance.
GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.
This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.