In municipal politics, “density” is a code word. For some, it’s synonymous with urban decay, or more mildly, a less prestigious neighbourhood. For others, it means diversity and vitality or smart growth.
But almost everyone associates density with height: the taller the building, the denser. And because that’s often the case, it seems to make sense, even when it isn’t true. Typically a battle over development turns into a debate over height. Some communities consider the battle won when a building is reduced in height, even if the density doesn’t change.
There’s also confusion over the exact definition of density. Is it calculated, for instance, by including all open space – the roads, the setbacks, the parks? In other words, the gross density. Or is it a calculation of so many square metres on the building’s footprint – or net density? And then there’s population density versus building density, calculated as floor-space (or FSR). Or how about the number of people per unit? And so on.
Since I live in the West End (often said, inaccurately, to be Canada’s densest neighbourhood), and have sat through a lot of public hearings, I’m acutely aware of the confusion – and often surprised at how urban problems are sometimes inversely proportionate to height. Today, for instance, there’s a good article in the New York Times (here) on the fabled Casbah, an historic district of Algiers.
Not much over three storeys. But a lot of people are crammed into those courtyards:
“… the quiet, private spaces have since given way to overcrowding. In 1958 the Casbah’s 175 acres were home to only 30,000 people [a gross density of 171 people per acre]. Those numbers swelled as the battle for independence gained strength, and people crowded into the city to escape reprisals by the French. More than 80,000 people live in the Casbah today. [457 people/acre.] Each house, intended for as single family, now holds as many as 10 poor families.
So how does that compare to the West End, where three-quarters of the buildings are five storeys or more:
With respect to population density, not even close. In the West End’s 500 acres (Burrard-Georgia-Stanley Park-English Bay), there are 42,120 people (2001). Gross density is therefore 84 people per acre – middling by world standards – and almost country-like compared to nearly 500 per acre in the Casbah.
More importantly, the 28,000 households average out to 1.5 people per unit. In other words – and this is what counts – the West End, though a high-density neighbourhood, is not overcrowded. That, as Jane Jacobs pointed out, means too many people in too small a space. It’s what people want to get out of as they get more affluent, though they may search out a high-density neighbourhood if it offers what they want.
So, if the West End is not Canada’s densest neighbourhood, what is?
Well, it’s this:
This is St. James Town in Toronto, not far from the corner of Bloor and Yonge. With 18,000 people, occupying 18 highrise buildings on just over 100 acres, it has a density of about 170 people per acre – double the West End. But although it may look a lot of like the West End, St. James Town does suffer from problems of overcrowding and poverty.
Height, however, is not the reason or the issue, as illustrated by a comparison with, say, the Upper East Side of New York – certainly dense but also one of the most affluent places on the planet.
None of these comparisons will make much of a difference in the density game. Perception is what counts.