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.
Casbah NYT
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:
West End density
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:
St. James Town
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.

Comments

  1. Here in Seattle we’re zoning for taller buildings downtown, ostensibly to increase density and move people closer to their jobs. All the projects I’ve heard about so far are large luxury condominiums, and based on your post I’m wondering how much effect they will have on Seattle’s human geography.
    Are high rises the best way to move people into the urban core? How do they compare to 3-5 story apartment blocks in terms of their affordability and population density?

  2. I’ve just returned from a week in Montreal, where I spent much time in the well known (and well-loved) “Plateau” neighbourhood. It’s composed almost entirely of 50-100 yea-old row houses, many of which are in Montreal’s unique triplex format. These provide fantastic densities at low heights, ground oriented units (everyone’s got their own front door) and virtually no parking. And best of all, because of the buildings’ design (usually the owner on the ground floor unit & 2 rental units above) it almost guarantees the preservation of extensive rental stock even as the neighbourhood gentrifies.
    Large areas of row housing (of which Vancouver has virtually none) can create quite high densities at low heights, and thus support extremely vibrant neighbourhoods. The only trick is trashing our parking requirements which would make such construction impossible today. And don’t try and tell me it wouldn’t sell!

  3. In Nanaimo (polulation 80,000) high rises on the waterfront are deemed necessary in order to induce people to live downtown. It’s the only way to handle the parking, says our mayor and council.
    The problem with the high rise density game is not only this particular fallacy, but its impact on other people and other needs. In Nanaimo downtown high rises will effectively poach on public park space and so acquire a private benefit from a public good. Wealthy developers of these towers will also benefit from the elimination of DCC’s, money that will now be extracted from other taxpapers to subsidize infrastructure costs associated with high rise development (e.g., fire department upgrades).
    But the biggest problem is perhaps “wannabeism.” Politicians just want our downtown to be sprinkled with towers, so it will be like say, West Vancouver. That will show everyone that we’ve “made it.”
    In reality, it will give us a city like everyone else’s city and so detract from Nanaimo’s most appealing charateristic: its uniquely configured and historic downtown, which is its greatest asset for the future. The experience of many old cities is that heritage conserved and enhanced is the recipe for revitalization and prosperity.
    Heritage restoration and high density residential housing without towers on the waterfront: an idea that should be simple to grasp for our city but unfortunately eludes our civic politicians, our press and our business leaders.
    And I have not even mentioned the great conference centre debacle — a highly controversial project underway next to the library and theatre that will turn the centre of Nanaimo’s historic downtown into a large and mostly underutilized institutional zone. A mini-Brazilia effect right in the heart of one of B.C.’s most historic cities.
    The unsophisticated and indeed sloppily argued density game can indeed have many unpleasant effects, as the Nanaimo case makes clear.

  4. I guess why the numbers (84 persons per acre) do not show the real density of West End because we are including portion of Stanley Park in the 500 acre while calculating density per acre. Usually we do not see that size of parks in other neighbourhoods.
    Gordon: Actually, we’re not including Stanley Park. The 500 acres is the area between English Bay and Georgia Street, from Lagoon Drive to Burrard Street.

  5. I live in the previously-mentioned Plateau area of Montreal and i’ve often heard that it is the neighbourhood with the highest density in North America. How does it compare with St. James Town?

  6. Why not zone for highrises with floors between 8 and 100+ leaving the ground as open space for people. Only the lift well and essential supporting columns below the eighth level. This will allow people looking towards the coast or water to see the horizon, waterline and sky. Blend in the area under the highrise to the park nearby. Instead of building arbours and shelters or hard landscaped areas, allow people to enjoy the undercroft areas of the highrises as public open space. Adding highises to a city with compulsory public undercrofts mean those on the far side of the road get views back as highrise go up (not loose more view). The additional space that was once private yards for houses on the ground, assists to provide more public open space for those now living between floors 8 and 100. Height limits that squash buildings into more bulky ground hugging forms are not as good as slender very tall buildings with zero floors between ground and level eight.

  7. Here in Seattle we’re zoning for taller buildings downtown, ostensibly to increase density and move people closer to their jobs. All the projects I’ve heard about so far are large luxury condominiums, and based on your post I’m wondering how much effect they will have on Seattle’s human geography.
    Are high rises the best way to move people into the urban core? How do they compare to 3-5 story apartment blocks in terms of their affordability and population density?
    Patrick B McGrath – July 24, 2006 at 12:15 pm
    I’ve just returned from a week in Montreal, where I spent much time in the well known (and well-loved) “Plateau” neighbourhood. It’s composed almost entirely of 50-100 yea-old row houses, many of which are in Montreal’s unique triplex format. These provide fantastic densities at low heights, ground oriented units (everyone’s got their own front door) and virtually no parking. And best of all, because of the buildings’ design (usually the owner on the ground floor unit & 2 rental units above) it almost guarantees the preservation of extensive rental stock even as the neighbourhood gentrifies.
    Large areas of row housing (of which Vancouver has virtually none) can create quite high densities at low heights, and thus support extremely vibrant neighbourhoods. The only trick is trashing our parking requirements which would make such construction impossible today. And don’t try and tell me it wouldn’t sell!
    Dan Freeman – July 26, 2006 at 10:48 pm
    In Nanaimo (polulation 80,000) high rises on the waterfront are deemed necessary in order to induce people to live downtown. It’s the only way to handle the parking, says our mayor and council.
    The problem with the high rise density game is not only this particular fallacy, but its impact on other people and other needs. In Nanaimo downtown high rises will effectively poach on public park space and so acquire a private benefit from a public good. Wealthy developers of these towers will also benefit from the elimination of DCC’s, money that will now be extracted from other taxpapers to subsidize infrastructure costs associated with high rise development (e.g., fire department upgrades).
    But the biggest problem is perhaps “wannabeism.” Politicians just want our downtown to be sprinkled with towers, so it will be like say, West Vancouver. That will show everyone that we’ve “made it.”
    In reality, it will give us a city like everyone else’s city and so detract from Nanaimo’s most appealing charateristic: its uniquely configured and historic downtown, which is its greatest asset for the future. The experience of many old cities is that heritage conserved and enhanced is the recipe for revitalization and prosperity.
    Heritage restoration and high density residential housing without towers on the waterfront: an idea that should be simple to grasp for our city but unfortunately eludes our civic politicians, our press and our business leaders.
    And I have not even mentioned the great conference centre debacle — a highly controversial project underway next to the library and theatre that will turn the centre of Nanaimo’s historic downtown into a large and mostly underutilized institutional zone. A mini-Brazilia effect right in the heart of one of B.C.’s most historic cities.
    The unsophisticated and indeed sloppily argued density game can indeed have many unpleasant effects, as the Nanaimo case makes clear.
    Eric Ricker – July 27, 2006 at 12:25 pm
    I guess why the numbers (84 persons per acre) do not show the real density of West End because we are including portion of Stanley Park in the 500 acre while calculating density per acre. Usually we do not see that size of parks in other neighbourhoods.
    Gordon: Actually, we’re not including Stanley Park. The 500 acres is the area between English Bay and Georgia Street, from Lagoon Drive to Burrard Street.

  8. Hi, I thought I would post a comment and inform you that your page layout is really messed up on the Firefox browser. Seems to work good in IE however. Anyhow keep up the great work.

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