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Density vs. Design

By Dan Zack, AICP, Downtown Development Coordinator

What is Density?

"Density" is a word that comes up a lot in discussions about city planning and redevelopment. But what does it mean? Well, density is simply a measurement of how many homes there are per acre of land in a given area. It can be an effective way of measuring how “built up” a neighborhood is or isn’t. Density calculations can tell you if an area is rural, suburban, or urban in nature. It can give retailers an idea of how many customers are near their stores, and it can let public works officials know what kind of infrastructure a neighborhood needs.

But there are many things that density calculations cannot tell us, too. They cannot tell us the quality of a neighborhood. They cannot tell us how attractive it is, or how safe it is. They cannot tell us the stability of property values, or how happy the residents are, either.

Why Should We Build Densely?

The Redwood City General Plan states that “Higher residential densities should be promoted near or within commercial centers, employment centers, and transportation terminals.” The City’s Housing Element Subcommittee has also stated that higher density housing should be considered in the downtown district and along transit corridors

Indeed, in certain places it is very appropriate and necessary to build densely. Around transit stations is a good example. In order to ensure that the transit system will capture enough riders, it must have a lot of them living close by—preferably within a quarter of a mile. They only way to achieve this is with high density. This not only benefits those living near the transit station by offering them a convenient lifestyle, but it benefits residents of other neighborhoods too by lowering traffic congestion and air pollution and by making efficient use if infrastructure, which makes our tax dollars go further.

Another place where density is appropriate and necessary is Downtown. Downtown is the hub of government functions, transportation systems, and of services. It is the most appropriate place to build densely. In an area with so many jobs and services available, it makes sense for many people to live within easy reach. Having a critical mass of people Downtown also creates a very fertile environment for shops and restaurants, which cannot easily sustain themselves on outsiders alone… and having a fun Downtown to visit benefits us all!

Another perk of density is that it provides additional housing options for people who need or want them. While many people find a detached single-family home to be the ultimate living arrangement, some people do not. Many young adults find the urban lifestyle of a dense neighborhood to be very exciting and desirable. Other people find it very helpful to live in a place where they can get along without a car. Many retired people prefer to live in downtown areas because they have lost their ability to drive but they don’t want to surrender their independence. Others still are just sick of spending their weekends mowing the lawn. Whatever their reasons, we should provide well designed high density neighborhoods for them to live in.

Finally, they Bay Area is still in the midst of a housing shortage. We are running out of open land to develop, and expanding into the San Joaquin Valley and other outlying areas often causes more problems than it solves. We simply must build more housing in existing urban areas. The only way to accomplish that will be through increasing density in our downtowns and at transit hubs. If we don’t, air quality will deteriorate, traffic will get worse, and our children will not be able to afford to live here. Density, properly designed, can help us solve these problems.


What Is The Right Way To Build Densely?

In our generation, the word “density” has gotten a bad name. This is partially deserved, and partially undeserved. It is partially deserved because most of the dense developments constructed since World War II are not attractive, pleasing places. Many, in fact, are down right awful. In the worst cases, such as the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing project, they were very dangerous.

However, this isn’t just due to the density of these places. The real problem with post-War density isn’t the density at all. Rather, it is the design. By design, we mean how the buildings relate to the street, how they relate to other buildings, and how the buildings are designed aesthetically and functionally. In the modern era, these issues have often been mishandled, leading to severe problems.

So what is the right way to build densely?! The best way to find an answer to this question is to simply study older dense areas that work well. Indeed, some of the most beloved neighborhoods in the nation are also some of the densest. Examples include the North End and Back Bay in Boston, Greenwich Village and SoHo in New York, Georgetown and Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and Nob Hill and North Beach in San Francisco. These neighborhoods are extremely dense, and still function well even though they are all more than 100 years old.

There are several factors that make these places work. The primary design trait of great urban density is walkability. In dense areas, it is absolutely critical that people be able to walk. This allows them to travel for at least some of their needs without an automobile, cutting down on the need for parking. It also contributes to safety by providing “eyes on the street.” A street with lots of pedestrians is a very safe place to be. A neighborhood can be made walkable by providing sidewalks at least 5 feet wide (preferably wider), by laying out an interconnected street grid with short blocks (usually 200 to 400 feet in length), and by designing narrow roads which encourage slower auto traffic. On-street parking also helps by providing pedestrians a physical and psychological buffer from traffic.

Another feature of successful high density areas is “mixed uses.” This means that the neighborhood isn’t purely residential. Within walking distance (sometimes even in the same building!) there must be shops, restaurants, offices, and services. This provides convenience for the residents of dense areas by cutting down on the need to drive. It also helps to keep the sidewalks busy and safe.

Another way that successful density is designed is that the buildings are built right up to the sidewalk, with entrances and windows facing the street. This has many positive effects. First, it makes the street feel spatially defined and comfortable, like an outdoor room. It also contributes to safety by adding more “eyes on the street” since it enhances pedestrian convenience. Also, by placing the building at the front of the lot, private yards are located at the rear of the building where it can be truly private, secured, and safe.

Finally, the public realm must be of high quality in dense areas. In low density suburban areas the public realm (which consists primarily of streets) is often bleak, consisting of only wide, fast roads. But in dense urban neighborhoods people spend much more time in the public realm and it must be enjoyable. Sidewalks must be wide, there should be street trees, and street furniture such as benches are helpful too. In dense areas streets are not just for moving cars, but rather they are multi-purpose public areas, and their functions include auto movement, pedestrian movement, dining, social encounters, and just hanging out. When all of these elements are in place, higher densities can create safe, prosperous, efficient, and enjoyable neighborhoods that add value to all areas of the city.


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