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From the Design Quarterly: 8 ways to design for density and live where the action is

August 12, 2019

By Beth Elliott

Cities that have higher density are inherently more sustainable—and they are generally more livable, too

Headlines around sustainability are often devoted to the next generation of high-tech solutions—glass that can change its tint, for example. And as designers, we are enthusiastic about employing a range of sustainable design strategies from Passive House to solar orientation to daylighting. These strategies help designers deliver less carbon-intensive buildings, but these approaches generally end at the building level. But what is one of the most sustainable actions we can undertake as designers? Densifying our existing cities.

If we want a more sustainable future, we really need to design for more sustainable lifestyles. Density is one way we can achieve that.

Dense cities are sustainable because they’re inherently more efficient. Those that dwell in denser cities typically drive shorter distances, walk more, and take more transit. They have a lower carbon footprint. City dwellers tend to live in smaller spaces which require less heating and cooling per person. Research shows there are other benefits, too. Those spending less time commuting by car tend to have healthier hearts. Density also provides opportunities to set the stage for the kind of social interactions and cultural experiences that enhance our life.

Below are eight ways to enhance density, livability, and sustainability in our cities.

Southline in Boston, Massachusetts.

1. Enhancing city life for people

A density approach speaks to the way we experience and appreciate cities historically. Dense, human-scaled places with lively street life are perennially attractive to us. The designer that takes a human-experience point of view within a city sees the benefits of density. If we can highlight the richness of city life and make it more desirable than the suburbs or exurbs that’s a sustainable point of view. If we can enhance city life—those opportunities for activity, culture, and social connection—we’re making city life more desirable and, in effect, promoting density.

How can we achieve and promote density and quality of life? There are ways achieve a healthy density in the city that preserve privacy. We don’t need a tower of apartments. There are lots of ways of achieving it in more human-scaled forms.

Read and download the Design Quarterly Issue 06 | Destination Zero

It’s about creating desirable places scaled to human life where human culture and activity can flourish.

2. Micro units: Driving affordability into urban housing

In micro-living, building residents trade private space for affordability.

They live in smaller, studio-like apartments but in multi-unit buildings rich in amenities and common spaces and with easy access to the city’s cultural offerings. It’s a lifestyle that says the city is my living room … and laundry room and fitness center. Those shared public amenity spaces mean you’ll actually get to know your neighbors!

3. Urban gardens

In shared urban gardens, urban dwellers have an opportunity to grow some of their own food and get their hands dirty in the soil without needing to maintain a private yard. We can insert these gardens into almost any development either on a rooftop of an individual building to pocket parks that break up the streetscape in the neighborhood.

Bonus? Gardening has a psychological benefit. Another bonus? Urban gardens make excellent homes for urban wildlife.

Cities such as Boston, Massachusetts, have adjusted zoning laws to permit everything from ground and rooftop farming to beekeeping and aquaponics. Cleveland, Ohio, and Boston have created zones for urban agriculture. And Minneapolis, Minnesota, has a garden lease program that promotes gardening in vacant lots and grants for turning brownfields into community gardens. To promote urban gardening, local governments must clear away some red tape, but it tends to be a low-cost way to green the city.

Oakridge Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Stantec, Gensler, HPA)

4. Pedestrian and bike friendly

Part of the key to making a dense place more livable and desirable lies in the creation of streetscapes where residents feel comfortable to walk, bike, or ride. The most successful examples are found in places where the impact and role of the car is balanced against other uses within the streetscape.

If we take the human point of view, the difference between what works and what doesn’t in promoting dense city living is easily seen. There is little appeal in stepping out of our front door onto a narrow sidewalk with no greenery or trees, right next to a four-lane road packed with cars. Ask yourself, would I want to live there? Designing with the pedestrian experience in mind means creating stronger ties between nature and the city as well as thinking about street-side retail and restaurant uses. Together, these strategies deliver a more vibrant and dense approach to land use.

5. Animated public spaces (super blocks, plazas, etc.)

Step out onto a small street in a city, perhaps a plaza where cars and pedestrians share space with a leafy tree canopy. Immediately, it feels quieter and less stressful. It’s a place where human comfort has been considered. It feels like a nice place to live. Cities around the world—such as Barcelona, Spain; Portland, Oregon; and Copenhagen, Denmark—are doing interesting things with super blocks and creating pedestrian-friendly areas in the city. These places are attractive to people and a boon to density.

South Bay Center in Boston, Massachusetts.

6. Design for cultural life 24/7

Cities are discovering that they can activate their downtowns and stadium districts by thinking of them as vibrant places to welcome visitors all year-round rather than one-note weekend destinations. In Stantec’s work on the Park at Wrigley and the Rockies stadium district in Denver and Water Street Tampa we’re finding inventive design and programming strategies that make these city districts welcoming (even in the off season) to a wider spectrum of people than ever before.

7. Transit-oriented design

Rather than counting cars on a road, city planners and voters are beginning to see the value in developments. Cities with robust public transport options are favorable to transit-oriented development in areas where residential and commercial potential is high because of proximity to light rail or subway systems.

TOD promotes density by incentivizing both transit and real estate development while reducing parking requirements in zoning. It favors denser developments that integrate office, retail and housing. TOD has been successful in New York City. TOD allows developers the ability to develop higher-density and more retail—in exchange for cost-sharing for items that benefit the wider community. Ideally, TOD promotes walkable communities and contributes to resilient economic development.

8. The pleasing human-centered rhythms of the city

Researchers say that the human brain requires about 1,000 stimulations an hour, that’s something stimulating your brain every 4 seconds or so. Walking at a pedestrian pace that equates to seeing something interesting about every 25 feet. Not uncoincidentally, designers find that appealing retail storefronts are about 25-feet-wide. These tend to be found in great lively urban places. Likewise, walking along a series of big box stores tends to bore us.

While this sounds like a recipe for great urban design, it’s also a challenge. How do we resolve the service and retail needs of dense areas with human scale? How do we make a grocery store interesting? Stimulating? And where are we going to put parking, which we will need? Are we massing buildings with their relationship to light and comfort for people on the street?

Density is all about the human scale

Achieving density isn’t about hitting arbitrary metrics. It’s about creating desirable places scaled to human life where human culture and activity can flourish. While density might have a wonky tone to it, it’s a value based on what we love about the great cities and civilizations of the world—their walkability, their color, their vibrancy, and their endless options and opportunities.

Living a life with a lighter appetite for resources means living where the action is.

  • Beth Elliott

    As the downtown planner for the City of Minneapolis, Beth has spent 15 years working on capital and facilities planning, in-fill development, historic preservation, and public participation methods.

    Contact Beth
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