Why urban density of the right kind is actually good for us

Helen Lui
Density can actually change our city for the better. PHOTO BY JEREMY VIA PEXELS.

Sept. 11, 2023

We constantly hear about the problems with density: tiny shoeboxes in the sky, looming towers and their shadows, traffic congestion, and overcrowding. But despite popular discourse, denser living can actually be good for us and our communities.

Density as health

Density brings public services, transit, parks, and amenities closer together. When we can walk our children to school or cycle to the nearby park, grocer, or restaurant, we reduce carbon pollutants, save money otherwise spent on cars, and get some exercise, too.

Businesses thrive with increased foot traffic. Fewer car trips also mean less space dedicated to parking lots and highways, in addition to less fumes and noise. Streets that are bustling with pedestrians and cyclists allow more room for people to gather and engage in social activity, which strengthens our sense of safety and community.

Taller buildings closer together, instead of smaller buildings spread further out, preserve more green space for us to enjoy, too. Urban sprawl—the increasing low-density development on the edges of our urban areas—is one of the key drivers of environmental degradation.

Density equals more resources, less dollars

Better public services and amenities are found in denser communities. When city planners decide where to locate a new park, school, or community centre, they look for a sufficient number of residents in an easily accessible location. Funding public services is more efficient when they serve a greater number of people who live closer together.

Public transit is more efficient in denser areas as well, with upgrades benefitting a greater number of riders—resulting in more frequent and reliable services that provide a less costly and less time-consuming option than driving. A similar effect is apparent when considering improvements for cycling infrastructure and pedestrian safety.

Nearly every public service, from water to libraries to garbage collection, is far easier and cheaper to provide when people live closer together. A study in Halifax, for example, showed that the annual city cost of public services per household was more than double in suburban areas than urban ones.

This should come as no surprise. After all, we all pay for these public services, and efficiencies increase when funds are contributed to a smaller geographical area. This is especially true for infrastructure such as water and sanitary pipes, or power and internet services. The distance required to serve 100 separate detached homes is much, much higher and more expensive than the distance required to serve 100 homes in a few apartment buildings.

Density is restricted—but it shouldn’t be

Currently, the Lower Mainland’s amenity-rich city centres are only accessible to those who can afford their high cost of living. This is a result of restricting density to only a handful of neighbourhoods, which puts them in high demand and drives their prices up.

Many residents have been pushed out to the neighbouring areas in our Metro Vancouver region in search of cheaper housing. Denser living is not an option here, as the majority of our cities have planning regulations that limit the proximity, sizes, and heights of buildings—and require nearly decades-long, costly processes to create denser communities.

When moderate- and lower-income households are pushed into less dense suburbs, they are faced with fewer services and amenities, longer commutes, and a bigger carbon footprint (while being burdened with needing to rely on a car). Living an active, accessible, and sustainable lifestyle should not have such high cost barriers.

Density should be the priority

We often correlate tall towers with density, but density does not mean height. Cities like Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Osaka are often celebrated for their lack of skyscrapers—but what we don’t often discuss is that their densities are key to their success as thriving urban centres.

Paris, for example, is actually far more dense than Vancouver (20,000 residents per square-kilometre, compared to Vancouver’s 5,790), despite not appearing that way at first glance. Density in Paris is constant and spread out, with plenty of six- to 10-storey apartments; one thing you won’t find, though, are detached homes and smaller buildings.

By comparison, 80 per cent of Vancouver’s residential land is filled with, and only permits, detached homes and duplexes. While downtown Vancouver has a whopping 18,837 residents per square-kilometre, Shaughnessy has a mere 1,900. Unless we actively prioritize and permit the type of density we want, we will continue to force skyscraper heights in very limited areas.

The City of Vancouver and the provincial government are both proposing regulations in the fall to permit up to four units per property lot (currently only one detached home or duplex is permitted). It’s a start, but it’s nowhere near enough. These proposed regulations are still less feasible and more rigorous than building more small detached homes and buildings.

We should allow mixed-use buildings of at least six storeys in all our neighbourhoods—and ensure that they are not only easier to approve, but also more viable to build. Embracing density will require much stronger political will and bolder action. But that’s what is needed if we truly want healthier, more sustainable, and more vibrant communities to be accessible to everyone.

Helen Lui is a project manager in the development space.

[Top photo: Density can actually change our city for the better.PHOTO BY JEREMY VIA PEXELS.]