The Case for Density in Sustainable Cities

One of the many signs that green development and design is reaching a tipping point toward becoming business-as-usual, is the quantity of articles and writings on the subject in what might be considered "mainstream" land development publications. Case-in-point is the current Issue of Urban Land, the Green issue. This attention is a good thing, despite the growing need to ensure that developments that play the green card, truly do walk the talk. 

9 minute read

April 28, 2008, 2:36 PM PDT

By Brent Toderian

One of the many signs that green development and design is reaching a tipping point toward becoming business-as-usual, is the quantity of articles and writings on the subject in what might be considered "mainstream" land development publications. Case-in-point is the current Issue of Urban Land, the Green issue. This attention is a good thing, despite the growing need to ensure that developments that play the green card, truly do walk the talk. 

In addition to Vancouver being included as one of the 10 global cities profiled in the Urban Land Green keynote article, "Greener Cities", prominent local sustainability consultant Mark Holland and I were asked to write an article about density and its relationship to greener cities. The article below resulted. As I often say and write, cities cannot have a serious discussion about sustainability without talking candidly about the key tool of density. We hope this article helps with your local discussions.  


The Case for Density

By strategically increasing the number of dwelling units per acre, cities not only will go a long way toward meeting their sustainability objectives, but also will be competitive, resilient, and great places to live.

Urban Land Green - Spring 2008                                                                                         

By Brent Toderian and Mark Holland 

Density has become a highly charged topic in development today. In many communities, the news of a potential project that proposes to increase the number of dwelling units per acre can unleash an uproar by neighbors. This is unfortunate as density is a tool-arguably the most powerful one controlled by a municipality-to create a more sustainable city while at the same time helping to preserve agricultural land and the open space beyond its borders. Furthermore, strategic densification offers positive benefits far beyond an individual metropolitan area: after all, given the continued growth in world population and the continued migration of people to cities across the globe, the densification of all urban settlements-when done properly-can play a critical role in improving the health of the planet as a whole. 

Over the past several decades, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia, has applied strategic densification and increased housing choice in an effort to build a livable city of neighborhoods. In doing so, it has strengthened what many urban analysts consider to be the eight pillars that support a sustainable city. These pillars, and the contribution that density makes to them, are described below. 

Pillar 1: A Complete, Walkable Community

A sustainable community needs to be structured into complete, well-connected, mixed-use neighborhoods that allow residents to work, live, play, shop, and learn within a convenient walking or transit distance. While communities should be fashioned so that key natural features are protected, these should not be at the expense of many connections within neighborhoods to facilitate short trips between uses. A diverse mix of housing reflecting a range of incomes, family sizes, and ages should exist. Commercial areas should offer office, retail, and commercial space, in addition to residential and community amenities. 

Density that is well designed and assembled makes transit and retail more viable, supports more schools and services close to homes, and supports the clustering of development so as to better preserve natural areas. Higher densities make walkability possible, and great design makes it enjoyable. 

Pillar 2: A Low-Impact Transportation System

A sustainable community should provide as many alternatives to the automobile as possible, including planning for convenient transit service, and supporting shared-car opportunities to reduce the need for single-person auto use. Parking strategies should gradually reduce car use and ownership, and parking design should minimize landscape disruption.

A sustainable community should also prioritize pedestrian and cyclist modes of mobility by linking all areas with a fine-grained network of paths, and by designing local streets to support all ways of getting around, rather than emphasizing vehicular needs. Streets should also address other environmental and social objectives such as stormwater management, trees and bird habitat, urban agriculture, and playground areas. 

Research has shown density to be critical in shifting transportation away from the automobile to other modes of travel. With 30 to 60 percent of climate-changing emissions coming from transportation, this is critical. The emerging most influential neighborhood planning tool, the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED for Neighborhoods (ND), notes that a minimum of seven dwelling units per acre is required to support one bus every 30 minutes. Significantly increasing ridership requires transit frequency of around ten to 15 minutes, which in turn requires urban densities of 20 to 40 units per acre on average within a few blocks on either side of any key transit line. Highly convenient rapid transit requires even more units per acre to be viable. 

Pillar 3: Green Buildings

Buildings stand for 50 to 100 years, often with relatively few modifications, and their design significantly influences the impact their occupants have on the planet as they go about their daily lives. A sustainable community should be filled with green structures, which are typically promoted through green design regulations or guidelines or through green building rating systems such as the USGBC's/CaGBC's LEED system.  

Density necessarily requires a high percentage of multifamily homes in a neighborhood. Multifamily residences can be significantly more energy efficient than single-family homes as they share walls and often more efficient building-scale heating systems. Furthermore, multifamily densities are required to make the construction of district heating systems financially viable. In other words, some of the best green design and technological approaches are highly dependent on mid to higher densities. 

Pillar 4: Flexible Open Space

The open space in a sustainable community should accommodate both community and ecological needs, including protecting key environmental areas or functions, enhancing habitat through urban landscape design, offering significant recreation opportunities for people of all ages, and providing places to grow food in the city.  

Density offers both benefits and challenges in this regard. Parks, community gardens, and other open areas compete for space in a high-density neighborhood. The land these uses occupy requires significant civic investment unless a developer has provided them as a condition of development. However, through the use of green roofs, courtyards, and other exterior elements, well-designed density can provide strategic opportunities for outdoor space and locations to grow food. In addition, from a larger-scale view, focusing growth within higher-density areas permits the preservation of farmland, riparian areas, and other key uses on the edges of the community.  

Pillar 5: Green Infrastructure

"Green" infrastructure strategies should be created for every sustainable community to address the supply and management of energy, potable water, and materials and the reuse or disposal of wastewater, stormwater, and solid waste. Ultimately, many benefits can be gained by integrating these systems. For example, heat harvested from a wastewater pumping station can be used to heat buildings. The 2010 Olympic athletes' village in Vancouver, for instance, will be heated entirely by the heat from one wastewater pumping station nearby. 

Denser development provides the demand for heating and cooling that makes innovative infrastructure systems financially viable. For example, density around energy sources creates opportunities for cogeneration, from large facilities such as hospitals and arenas, or infrastructure such as transit tunnels. Waste energy from mixed uses can also provide opportunity for efficiency and utility investments, such as harvesting waste heat from a supermarket's freezers on a ground floor to heat residences above. Since a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to heating systems, any opportunity to establish district heating systems should be pursued in cities, and density and mixed uses make these uses more viable and profitable. 

Pillar 6: A Healthy Food System

A sustainable community includes food stores and restaurants, along with the provision of community garden space in neighborhoods. Some studies have suggested that as much fuel is used in a year to get a family's food to the table as is used by that family for all their other activities put together. Furthermore, the visibility and celebration of food in a neighborhood is an excellent source of social and cultural vitality-an important aspect of sustainability that should not be overlooked.  

Dense developments support local food stores and restaurants, community gardens, and other creative food-producing ventures, thereby offering residents convenient access to basic provisions. As noted earlier, compact, sprawl-reducing density can also support regional preservation of key, nearby agricultural areas. 

Pillar 7: Community Facilities and Programs

A sustainable community should provide key community facilities to support a healthy lifestyle, and the creation of diverse and positive social experiences for people of all ages. This includes a high-quality public realm that is designed to promote safety and encourage residents to meet each other and build relationships.  

Denser development leads to a much stronger business case for both public (e.g., community centers, parks) and private (e.g., supermarkets, coffee shops) amenities and programs. It also fosters a public realm that is able to generate high-quality activities that encourage the interaction of neighborhood residents. 

Pillar 8: Economic Development

A sustainable community should offer many ecologically responsible opportunities for investment, businesses, and employment that will, in turn, support an economically diverse and prosperous community. A range of commercial (office and retail) facilities should be offered to maximize working and shopping opportunities.  

Well-designed density is vital to a strong economic foundation in any neighborhood as it brings a critical mass of local employees and customers to support a variety of community needs. 

Sustainable cities are complex, and there are many factors to consider. Density is one of the most powerful tools any municipality has to achieve sustainability in all its dimensions. The 21st century will be the century of densification, and cities that get it right will not only perform well on sustainability objectives, but also be competitive, resilient, and great places to live.  

Brent Toderian is the City of Vancouver's director of planning. He is responsible for current planning, including the planning of projects for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and policy and visioning, including the city's EcoDensity Initiative. Mark Holland is a sustainable development consultant working with developers, cities, and companies. He has been a city planner in Vancouver and was the first manager of the city's Sustainability Office. 

* * * 


Vancouver's EcoDensity Initiative 

Building on its past successes in policy and projects involving well-designed density, the city of Vancouver launched an initiative, dubbed "EcoDensity," in 2006. This initiative embraces additional population growth within the city limits, done in a way that lowers environmental impact, supports sufficient physical and social amenities, and fosters housing diversity and affordability. 

Densification effects change, so discussions of density always raise debate. Even in Vancouver-a city in which density has been done well in the past-concerns have been expressed that this is "eco-cramming." Some say the price of change is too high-that it will reduce the quality of life, promote gentrification, decrease affordability, and change the character of the city's neighborhoods. Others, however, champion the notion of "density done well" and point to the price of inaction: a growing lack of affordable housing and housing diversity, given that about half of the city land area is still zoned for single-family homes, and the ongoing challenge presented by global climate change. Although the resulting public debates have been challenging, they are necessary and healthy for any city intending to take ecological sustainability seriously. 

Vancouver maintains high standards of urban design in denser areas to overcome the challenges posed by densification. The city also has a tradition of negotiating public benefits from developers in the form of community amenities. The combination of high-quality urban design, private provisions for public amenities, careful siting of new density types and scales relative to context, an emphasis on diversity, and engaged public discussions will continue to be the path that the city takes to move forward.-B.T. and M.H.

Brent Toderian

Brent is President of TODERIAN UrbanWORKS in Vancouver, Canada, and has over 24 years experience in advanced and innovative urbanism, city-planning and urban design. He advises cities & innovative developments all over the world, from Ottawa to Oslo, from Sydney to Medellin, from Auckland to Helsinki.

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