Density and Diminishing Returns

For quite a few years now, the city has been focused on intensification–increasing density in our urban and suburban communities. New developments often have minimum height and occupancy requirements. This is especially true for development adjacent to the new LRT stops. The city wants to create high density hubs to reinforce the purpose of the LRT. Generally speaking, this is a sound strategy.

If we were to eschew intensification, we would see greater sprawl; that’s the concern. People would have more space–which might be beneficial to many–but such development would increase the externalities that the rest of us must bear. There are environmental concerns, impacts on traffic and–in a more philosophical vein–questions about the very nature of property ownership.

As a result of this focus on intensification, we have seen much more building up, rather than building out. Go through our downtown core, or Hintonburgh, or Westboro, or the Glebe, or Little Italy, and you will see more and more highrises. More buildings of double digit storeys dot our urban landscape as we keep stacking more and more people on top of each other.

There is a cost to this, of course. As we go up, fewer of us will get to see the sky. Fewer homes and businesses will have sunshine coming through windows. As lovely as urban architecture can be, there will be a different sort of beauty lost. And, if a recent study out of Berlin is to be believed, we may not even be realizing our intensification dream.

The Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment has released the following graphic, showing the results of building height on density:

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According to the chart, the proper development strategy to optimize density is to construct buildings of five- or six-storeys. This is in direct contradiction to our higher is better (denser) mindset, and would suggest that current trends towards towering condo development would give us less density and less sky. If this is true, it is wonderful news. Few people prefer glass and steel to the sun and sky. A six-storey building is still quite tall, but it is not the monolith a 24-storey building is.

There are a few caveats that must expressed, though. This is but one study, and we cannot assume that it is the final say on urban intensification. Further, the study originates from Berlin and the results may not map directly onto Canadian cities, in general, or Ottawa, in particular. Off the top of my head, different building codes and different traffic patterns could alter the results. Finally, few people would suggest that every building on every city block should be five- or six-storeys high. Not only would such development strategies lend themselves to monotony, but it would ignore the tone of individual neighbourhoods.

Nonetheless, this study should not be dismissed out of hand. We are making sacrifices for intensification. These sacrifices (assuming development is done wisely) should lead to stronger communities with fewer externalities burdening the greater city. Intensification is the proper philosophy for the city to adopt, but we must discern what plans will actually lead to intensification. We cannot just assume that higher is denser.

Though such an assumption might be quite dense.

[H/T: Doug Saunders]

Intensification Everywhere?

There’s a mini-controversy in Ottawa right now. There’s a proposed condo development in Chapel Hill that is getting some heat from neighbours. These appear to be stacked townhouses and they would be built within a neighbourhood of single family homes. The development aligns with the city’s intensification policies, but does it really align with the spirit of intensification?

Density isn’t good in and of itself. It is good because it tends to limit sprawl, lower commuting distances and times, and help the environment. Chapel Hill isn’t a particularly central area. Intensification in such a community just shoves more people into a bedroom community, creating an even greater dependency on cars and buses.

Yes it’s better than building further and further out, but it’s not as good as building closer to the city’s core. There are a lot of areas that could benefit from intensification more than Chapel Hill. Hell, to get to Chapel Hill, you have to drive through the greenbelt, a rather useless zoning initiative, itself.

Better still, intensification works best when combined with mixed-use zoning. If we’re going to get more people living in Chapel Hill, we need more commerce in the area. There are business parks in the east end, but there isn’t the mixture that we see in older neighbourhoods.

Let’s open up zoning restrictions so that more people will not only live in Chapel Hill; they’ll live, work and play there.