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How Am I Suppose To Make My City Better With Density?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Allen Iverson asks. I answer




I was recently reminded of the infamous Allen Iverson moment, “How am I supposed to make my teammates better by practice?” So I couldn’t help myself, I went back and watched the 2:22 of internet glory from 2006.


As I went about my day, I was reading about density in our cities and neighborhoods. And I couldn’t help but form this question in Iverson’s voice, “How am I suppose to make my city better with density?”


Allen did not (read: does not) understand that by practicing with his teammates he can make them better. A similar misconception exists with many American’s and density.


We Talkin’ Bout Density?

A city, by definition, is a permanent and densely settled place. By leveraging density, our cities have become a place where people can live healthier, happier lives.


What do we mean by density? The number of people? The number of buildings? Both? Neither?


David Sim, an architect in Denmark, looks at density a little differently.


Density x Diversity = Proximity. — David Sim


In Sim’s formula, proximity is the likelihood of useful things, places, people being closer to you. If more things are closer to you, you’re more likely to go out and socialize.


Not Sprawl, Not Sprawl

Critics of density might use the alliteration, “Stack and Pack.” Unfortunately, the American dream is synonymous with owning a detached single-family home. But being pro-home-ownership doesn’t mean being anticity.


Sprawling out our cities increases infrastructure costs and then strains municipal budgets with an ever-increasing maintenance burden.


It means that citizens are further away from essential services and the cost to provide those services increase (public transportation, mail, public safety, healthcare)


Sprawling out our cities results in lost hours of productivity and increased carbon footprints due to commutes. An EPA study, “Location Efficiency and Building Type” from 2019 compares four factors: drivable versus walkable location; conventional construction versus green building; single-family versus multifamily; and conventional versus hybrid automobiles.


The study makes it clear that every factor counts but “location efficient” (read: walkable) makes an impact more than any other. Walkable is a lot easier without sprawl.


Sprawl affects us all.


Density

There are significant productivity bonuses hidden in density. The community gets a higher return on investment in public infrastructure. Since there are fewer roads and pipes to maintain, taxes can stay low and we can have better roads and pipes.


Kim Dovey, faculty at the University of Melbourne, has a similar line of thinking to Sim, “Density needs intensity”. Intensity is the frequency of social and economic encounters. Through those social encounters, ideas are exchanged, and creativity is fostered.


How might we have human-scaled density? Density with character? I love the considerations for density made by Daniel Parolek and the missing middle.


Brent Toderian discussed in a Vox interview in 2017 how density should also be multimodal and include forms of active transportation like walkability and biking.


If you try to design density around cars, it’s a recipe for failure. You have to make walking, biking, and transit not just available, but delightful. — Brent Toderian


You can see how all these factors play off each other. When proximity reaches a critical mass, you get intensity creating spontaneous social and economic encounters — a vibrant, healthy city.


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