Density, Neighborliness, and the Concentrated 'We'
When I think about neighbors, I think about density. That's likely because my work includes occasionally travelling the world talking about great city-building, including what I call "density done well."
I discuss all the public interest benefits of smart densification in cities, designing for more people on less land using less resources, from lowering our carbon footprint and increasing our energy resiliency, to making walking, biking and transit more inviting, improving our public health, and avoiding the bankrupting economic costs of sprawl.
However, my favorite way of thinking about density is by looking at people. Putting more people together in beautifully designed neighborhoods and places, supports everything that makes us human, from creativity, tolerance, and happiness—to even sexiness!
Last weekend, while running errands in my downtown neighborhood, surrounded by my fellow Vancouverites, I was inspired to tweet this thought:
"Great cities are a place to revel in a shared civic life. It's the people, the mixed & concentrated "we" that I love so much about cities!"
The great urban observer William H. Whyte taught us that nothing attracts people to cities and places more than other people. And one of the most memorable things Copenhagen’s Jan Gehl ever told me, was that you can double the density of people in a public place by doubling the number of people who seek it out, or by doubling the length of time they stay. Great places are both initially attractive, and "sticky" once you get there. A place, or a community or city for that matter, is sticky if people love it, and don't want to leave.
But if density supports a stronger civic life, is that the same thing as being neighborly? Proximity and great design may draw you to public places, intriguing crowds and people watching, but it doesn't mean you choose to knock on the doors of your neighbors. This might be because much of civic life can still be anonymous, while being neighborly is much more personal.
Neighborliness is a term we’ve used as a mantra in Vancouver design for generations. It’s about doing density in an artful way that can bring people together, but also gives them respite and privacy whenever needed—through avoiding over-building, providing access to nature and courtyards, and even separating our taller towers. There’s an old saying that “good fences make good neighbors”—in high density its more likely that good design makes good neighbors.
Although density doesn't ensure neighborliness, doing density well makes it easier. When we do density in Vancouver, we stress the quality of people-friendly architecture and public realm in what we call a "city by design". We agonize over the quality of amenities that make density livable and sociable, like parks, community and cultural places, schools and child-care, and local “third places” such as grocery stores, cafés and pubs. We design an inviting city for walking, biking and transit, not just because these are green and healthy, but because they’re inherently social. We require homes fit for families, as well as provide rental and social housing, for diversity and mix.
All of this fits into a framework and ethic where density is used not to maximize real estate profit, but to achieve outstanding public life, and hopefully neighborliness, with successful, authentic place-making. Density that works because people love it.
To be sure, there are a lot of bad examples of density out there. Sites that are overbuilt, disconnected from context or place, without design, mix, amenities and respite. People don't love this kind of density, and the fear of bad density tends to lead to controversy and less community acceptance of densification in general.
But when you do density with a people focus, in a neighborly way, something magical can happen. People can become more than the sum of their numbers, with vibrancy, creativity, and real human connection—what I love best about the mixed and concentrated 'we.'
Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and we'll send you GOOD's Neighborday Survival Guide and a bunch of other fun stuff.
Brent Toderian is an international urbanism consultant with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver Canada’s former Chief Planner, and the founding President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on twitter @BrentToderian.