What we talk about when we talk about density

I have this conversation a lot. About how we need denser cities. About how single family homes aren’t the be all and end all of the universe. Then someone freaks out and talks about how we aren’t India and how they don’t want to live in a micro condo. I always wonder why this is the place that we go to. Why we inhabit these radical extremes and how this conversation got so off balance.

I don’t want to live in a place that is a jampacked megacity but I also don’t really like living in a place where destinations seem really far away and I am not near basic services.

The upside is that there is an inbetween. I have lived in this inbetween in three separate countries that are not Canada. I would like us to think of density as a sliding scale with lots of room between micro condos and 4,000 square foot single family homes on culs-de-sac. Much like Goldilocks I don’t want to either burn myself or have to eat something frozen.

I want us to start talking about density in a sane way that accepts choice and variety. That looks to other places where other housing and building types are prominent. I would like to see us become a society where a variety of housing types are widely available as options not just a couple fairly extreme ones.

If I had to pick a favourite housing type it would be the row house I lived in in DC. There was lots of room, nice neighbours and a great vibe to the community. I lived within walking distance of everything I could need or want except my French meetup, which I took the metro to. I didn’t live in a massive tower block and never have but I lived in a place that was vibrant and dense. There were enough people to sustain thriving high streets and grocery stores. It didn’t feel mashed or like there was no privacy.

My home in Copenhagen was a 12 story perimeter block. It was near transit. Three grocery stores, a library, a fitness centre, schools, stores and a park. There were families, students, offices, a hotel and a mall in my area.

In Edinburgh I lived in a perimeter block building. It was shorter than the one in Copenhagen. I’d guess five or six stories (I lived on the first floor so I don’t know exactly how many). Here I also lived within a 20 minute walk of everything I wanted to do that didn’t involve a beach. I was close to grocery stores. I was close to school.

In all of these cases I had enough space to live but was also close enough to enough other people that I could access the things I wanted and needed to. Density is about balancing space, privacy and concentration of activity. We have become so obsessed with space and privacy that we have lost track of why humans gathered together in cities in the first place.

You’ll also notice that none of these cities were immense. Copenhagen is between 600,000 and 2 million depending on how you count it. Edinburgh is 500,000 and DC is 700,000. Density doesn’t need to be all horror and drama, and it’s not just for megacities. It’s really about balancing the benefits of proximity with the need for space.

At a recent D.Talks event that focused on proximity two firms spoke about multi-family projects in Canada. One was a Calgary firm and the other was from Winnipeg. The speaker from Winnipeg observed that six stories is actually the most efficient height for midrise in terms of density and costs. At six stories you can fit a lot of people in a building that is short enough to prevent shadow issues and feel human in scale.

What we need is to think about the options outside of tower blocks and sprawl. Low-rise medium density and mid-rise high density exist too. There are a lot of multi-family building types that many Canadians wouldn’t think of that are normal elsewhere. Hopefully in time they will begin to become a part of the conversation too.



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