Urban Densification – Where, When, How, or Should We Even?
The topic of urban densification is definitely a hot one these days and there certainly is no lack of opinions on the matter. North American communities were created in a post industrial revolution society that encouraged a mass exodus from the city centers to the suburbs. Our habitat was built around roads and the automobile makers prospered. Fast forward to the twenty first century and urban planners are singing a different tune. With the impact that long commutes to the suburbs has on not only our environment, but on our physical and mental wellbeing, the idea of living and working in one space has evolved. Now, this is not a new concept. Prior to the advent of automobiles, European towns and cities revolved around community squares where mom and pop shops, homes and the public sphere were interwoven.
The question that we at Little House get around this topic is: “Do you think your little homes are a practical densification model, or should we be building high-rises to maximize the use of the urban space?” Our answer is that we feel multiple forms of housing options are important to enhance our desirable, growing and vibrant community. We also feel that our suburbs could be enhanced if a development is done mindfully and with the perspective of community members and the natural environment at the core of every development decision to be made.
We are confident that not all neighbourhoods need to densify equally, nor do they need just one type of structure to create a happy, connected community. While high-rises may work really well in certain areas, mostly in the urban core, they certainly are not for everyone. In fact, psychologists have found that people who live in residential towers are more fearful, depressed and prone to sleeplessness and anxiety. They have found that the numbers of units and the design of the structures affect happiness. In countries like Singapore and Hong Kong lower birth rates and obesity have been partially attributed to high rise living. The desire for a more spacious lifestyle is very evident when significant numbers of individuals from these areas are trending towards moving to less dense countries like Canada and Australia.
Human scale is also something extremely important to consider. Through our research, we, at Little House, have come to believe that one healthy way to enhance community connectivity in high-rise neighbourhoods is to build high-rises that incorporate a residential commercial mix. This commercial street level vibrancy encourages walking and casual social interaction. In the most urban areas, if this type of building is interwoven with townhome or microhome developments that have front yards shallow enough to allow for interaction with passers-by, but deep enough to allow for privacy if desired, a diverse, connected neighbourhood is possible.
Important factors to note when considering the type of densification we should pursue are cultural norms and population desires. Although proponents of urban densification advocate for multifamily dwellings, a 2011 study by the National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America found that roughly four out of five home buyers prefer a single-family home. A single family home has become a status symbol in our society that many are, as of yet, unwilling to give up. So, although townhomes might achieve marginally more densification than micro homes, there are segments of our population that will choose to live in smaller homes with less land if given the option to still own a single family home. In this case, micro homes are a viable and desirable option for consumers.
Our health and happiness are dependent on many factors, some of which are directly affected by the planning of the communities in which we live. Beautiful and interesting structures should be preserved as much joy is derived by basking in the architectural beauty of heritage buildings. Preserving historic centers while adapting them to meet modern needs attracts business and culture that is critical in creating vibrant, healthy communities. The Gas Town area in Greater Vancouver is a wonderful example of this. When looking towards densifying these important areas of our communities, we cannot arbitrarily demolish what is there and put up new structures. We must integrate additions into the fabric of the existing infrastructure. Micro laneway or carriage homes are a great option in these circumstances. Micro homes do not overpower the laneway or the existing heritage structures and blend well with the fabric of the neighbourhoods.
We also must carefully consider the planning of open space as the balance between social connectivity, nature and privacy is very important. The ability to control this balance and who and where we interact with is a key determining factor in stress and happiness levels. A micro home pocket community in Kelowna would allow for the preservation of more green space on smaller lots. It will also provide a special separation between homes that is not too close, but not too far, achieving the fine balance between social connectivity and green space and personal space.
Finally, and many would argue most importantly, we need the transportation infrastructure to support any development we create. After spending a few days in my home town of Victoria, the incredible failure to create appropriate transportation corridors to support mass residential development was extremely apparent. I was dumbfounded as to why there would have been such a great expansion of the suburbs of Langford and Colwood, with seemingly no improvements to transportation infrastructure. The traffic was horrendous. Granted, they are currently working on a new bus interchange and talk of utilizing the old rail corridor for mass transit has resurfaced, but I think that we can lean a lot from my hometown. Let’s ensure we look at the ways we move about our city PRIOR to developing. I know this is a priority for our City, so let’s hope we can avoid the mistakes of our island friends!
In my next blog post, I plan on discussing my thoughts on suburban densification as it applies to our micro home products and greater community. We welcome your thoughts on the topic of densification. At Little House, the perspective of our fellow community members is how we learn and grow!
Happy Cities, Charles Montgomery
Walking Home, Ken Greenberg
Walkable City Jeff Speck