Density is in the mind of the beholder
The annual Congress for the New Urbanism starts today in Buffalo and just about everybody I have ever written about in TreeHugger is going. (I am going on Friday to cover the last two days for TreeHugger). One participant I hope to meet is Brent Toderian, former chief planner of the City of Vancouver and now a planning consultant and contributor to Planetizen. He notes in a recent post, Tall Tower Debates Could Use Less Dogma, Better Design that " height is often a more polarizing and controversial issue than density itself."
Height and density have a relationship, one that can be over-simplified or mischaracterized, but it’s important to note that they aren’t the same thing. You can have density without height, and yes, you can have height without density.
Brent instead makes the case that what we want is Density done well.
I reject the idea of any density at any height at any cost, and I dislike these kind of extreme and lazy false choices as unhelpful to a useful dialogue on what well-designed density can do.
A new study out of Paris confirms this position, and mine that there is a Goldilocks density that's just right. The Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme, or APUR, the Paris Planning Agency, studied the 19th century planning of the 9th arrondissement and the 60s planning of the 15th, both comfortable middle class areas, and found that true density is completely different than perceived density.
It becomes apparent that people living in tower blocks such as in the 15th arrondissement consider “the height of the buildings [...] oppressing” and think that their neighborhood is much too dense. Yet, the floor area ratio and the rate of visits of this urban area are both very low in relation to the other neighborhoods studied. On the contrary, residents from an urban fabric which is continuous and coherent, on the architectural level, appreciate the well-being of such a neighborhoods, while not detecting its high density. Perceived density changes according to different factors. It tends to increase when buildings have a large number of units, and it tends to decrease when there is a strong presence of nearby facilities and services such as businesses, leisure activities, and culture.
In other words, the denser, closer old buildings felt a lot less oppressive and dense than the towers, even though they were in fact significantly denser. It's how you pack them in, not how high you build, that determines how it is perceived. More at the Sustainable Cities Collective