Decoding Density

When you think of putting a lot of people in a small amount of space, how do you feel? Does it sound like a good idea or a bad one?

Density, or the number of people in a given amount of space, is certainly a divisive (and emotional) issue. Most experts recognize that grouping more people into smaller areas is beneficial. However, many people I know — friends and neighbors  who don’t spend excessive amounts of time reading and thinking about cities — hate it.

Though it’s a laborious task to pinpoint all the reasons density gets a bad rap, The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy provides a useful guide explaining what density is and why it matters. Like this PlaceMakers post — which refers to density as “dreaded” and acknowledges that it’s a challenging issue — the guide confronts the challenges of the issue head on. It includes instructions on how to measure density, information on design and context, and many other useful tools.

If you’re reading this and aren’t quite sure what density is — or aren’t convinced that it can be great — this guide is for you.

Even more importantly, this guide offers experts and citizen advocates a model for explaining density and its benefits. In Provo especially, my sense is that no one has compellingly explained to many people why the city needs to grow upward and become more dense. Most neighborhood and community meetings that I’ve attended, in fact, have included comments about the perceived negative effects of density.

In other words, in Provo and elsewhere people who understand density are utterly failing to make a case for it. That means leaders of all kinds need to step it up and do a better job at making this issue understandable. That’s not easy, but it’s one of the more important things Provo lacks right now. Hopefully this guide will make that task just a little bit easier.

Apartments in downtown Provo. One of the biggest challenges facing cities like Provo is that people don’t understand why apartments can potentially be good things. I suspect that many people in Provo and elsewhere also automatically associate density with this somewhat flawed building, not realizing that there are other, and better, ways to increase density. That knowledge gap needs to close.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Decoding Density

  1. Paul

    Much of the stigma attached to higher density actually has more to do with bad design than with density, and bad design tends to be very common in our environment. Hence, higher density often gets blamed for problems caused by design. (It may be fair to say, however, that higher density concentrates and therefore makes the perils of bad design more obvious than with lower-density.) If people, including city policymakers, were better at identifying high-quality design and articulating it in city codes and project review processes, many of the objections that people raise about high density would not exist. And this isn’t just about regulating aesthetics, although aesthetics are a part of it. Great design has at least as much to do with functionality as with decoration. People are attracted to places and things that look nice, but those places and things won’t be truly successful in the long run unless they work well also.

    One other thought: experience has shown that it’s really difficult to regulate good design. Some developers get it and can be counted on to employ good design in their projects, while others just don’t, and probably never will. “Good design” checklists in city codes may help, but a developer who really doesn’t understand it and fails to employ people who understand it at both the conception and implementation stages just won’t do it. So having the right people involved is more important than city codes when it comes to getting good higher-density housing. Unfortunately, cities don’t have the luxury of dealing only with the “good” developers, though they can put development standards in place to try to establish sort of a lowest-common-denominator.

  2. Pingback: Density Is Needed Everywhere In Provo | (pro(vo)cation)

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