Rethinking Density

Since reading Jane Jacob’s classic The Death and Life of the Great American City and the much more recent Happy City by Charles Montgomery, my perception of Vancouver, and the structure of cities in general, has changed a lot. I have a lot of thoughts, many probably quite simplistic, and many more probably fairly naive. However, the act of thinking about them enough to make a post will hopefully have some value. I welcome comments or suggestions on further reading

One thing I noticed about Vancouver is the bimodal distribution between low-density (which thanks to Vancouver’s small plot sizes and frequent renting is at least still far above suburban levels) and high-density. Below you can see a map of the density per residential zoned hectare. You can see that Vancouver fairly distinctly separates into the high density of downtown and surrounding areas, with high-rises on most blocks and the lower density of most of the rest of Vancouver characterized by standard single family lots.

Population Desnity

And this seems to strongly influence debates on Vancouver’s future. Most people arguing against density seem to be reacting mostly against the type of density they see downtown and in a few other hub areas like metrotown. After living in high-rise buildings for the last few years I understand why there is often pretty strong negative reaction against this form of living. Apartments are isolating. In these two years of living in an apartment the longest interaction I had with someone in my building was when I broke up a fight between my neighbour and his son-in-law.

The issue though is that there are other options that is rarely mentioned in Vancouver. When I was traveling through Europe, one of the most remarkable things I noticed was that most of the cities I visited were statistically very dense, with more people per square km than Vancouver, and yet they generally had very little like Vancouver’s extremely dense downtown area with multiple 10+ story buildings. Despite having little of this more extreme density, most areas were extremely walk-able and had excellent public transit.

I think the city should seriously consider zoning the blocks around most major streets (which for most of Vancouver is every 8 blocks) for medium-density with a strong mixed-used component. Obviously there are a lot of specifics to work out to ensure that lower-income Vancouverites will have their access to housing improved, and to keep the character of neighbourhoods in tact, but I believe these are solvable problems while a lot more people can live in the city.

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