Our CEO Emeka Nnadi often discusses smart density with clients. It’s a topic that transcends the urban development arena, impacting large land developers, boutique mixed-use developers, rural municipalities, and single and multi-family home builders.
For those unfamiliar with the term, smart density means compact, well-connected and thoughtful development that promotes sustainable, resilient and comfortable living. Not to mention provides a better risk-adjusted return for developers.
To figure out what the right density looks like (generally measured as the number of homes per acre) can feel about as easy as searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. The shared responsibility of creating places and spaces for healthy future communities calls for collaboration, commitment and the strength to look beyond individual perspectives.
So, before we understand how to approach smart density, let’s comprehend where it rose from and what it means.
Urban sprawl is the expansion of a city’s geographical boundaries. This expansion can mostly occur due to low housing opportunities and single-use zoning.
A response to the public’s need for bigger houses and greenery, low-density suburban communities sprung up all over North America in the second half of the 20th century. People moved to the suburbs to be closer to nature but not too far from the city and its offerings.
While it may seem like the perfect balance, this is how urban sprawl became detrimental. The increased spatial footprint of a metropolitan city grew by leaps and bounds as people kept moving.
North American suburbs have added significant carbon emissions, pollution, and stormwater runoff to our environment. On top of that, they created less active/healthy people and instilled the illusion that the land was an unlimited resource.
The tension between urban centres and suburban sprawl has been a constant topic in planning discussions for decades. Over the last 30 years, cities have made massive efforts to stop urban sprawl by increasing housing units and improving transportation services in the urban core, providing better opportunities to live, work and play within walking distance.
Every day is more evident that suburban neighbourhoods have many potentials to help reduce the inevitable footprint of urban life.
Having a densely populated area does not always sound good. It can be highly detrimental, especially if the living conditions are poor. Very high urban densities (found in many of our mega-cities) can have their own issues, including light pollution, noise pollution, and carbon pollution; vehicular and even pedestrian traffic congestion; environmental degradation due to a loss of contact with nature; and erosion of food quality (or increase in cost).
However, it’s still possible to have high density and compact living without compromising the standard of living. The idea is to have a densely populated area and still make it sustainable, incorporating land-use policies that support re-designing and rebuilding suburbia back into the urban fabric.
One size (or density) seldom fits all situations. However, some ideas have developed over time that, when applied, can still help show us how to achieve smart density.
The New Urbanism movement began in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as a reaction to urban sprawl. Urban planners and architects started to model cities in North America after the much older and remarkably resilient European cities.
Internationally, many dense and well-connected cities have a positive track record for offering a high quality of life and success in reducing their carbon emissions.
Richard Bernhardt, a leading new urbanist who heads the Nashville Davidson County Planning Department in Tennessee, has identified seven fundamental principles of New Urbanism:
The movement and its principles do not resolve every element in the quest for the right density levels. However, it does pull these principles from neighbourhoods, communities and cities that have endured and demonstrated higher levels of sustainability, resilience and comfort.
One of the most environmentally friendly ways of increasing density without compromising quality would be to make things at a walkable distance. Convenience draws people to places, and having a restored mall or marketplace just a short walk or a bike ride away will catch people’s eye.
It’s not just malls and markets but also green spaces like parks and gardens. People who have moved to the suburbs want to be closer to nature, so a shared zone within walking distance can do wonders.
Creating walking paths and biking zones to travel safely and eco-friendly can further solidify these developments.
Another way to encourage smart density would be to have essential amenities near the house. These mainly refer to services that can offer some support to the housing units. So, having libraries, launderettes, and schools around the residential area is more likely to attract residents to stay within that area.
Urban retrofitting is becoming more popular in many American cities. Restoring greyfield land—abandoned malls or parking lots—into the urban fabric can help increase the density of a specific area, sustainably bringing in services and amenities. It’s also an excellent opportunity to create mixed-use developments that can support residents’ needs.
As I mentioned earlier, mixed-use development can be a great way to increase density. It’s also a great display of housing options in suburban life, making it more inclusive and creating new patterns for residents.
Elements like secondary houses allow larger parcels to include an extra unit. Another family member can use it, or the family can rent it out for an additional income. In many cultures, multi-generational residential units are standard, but in North American cities can become a great solution to strengthen families and increase suburban density.
Another housing trend popular with millennials or small families is co-housing. Co-housing is where different family groups share amenities like communal kitchens, laundry or recreational spaces to reduce the pricing units while creating a stronger community.
If we are all serious about reducing urban sprawl and increasing sustainability, we must enact measures to ensure smart density. At the same time, they must be managed appropriately and balanced well with the natural elements.
We can make suburbs more sustainable with quality spaces. In architect and urbanist Ellen Dunham-Jones TED Talk, she presents a fantastic collection of retrofitting examples in suburbia. You should check it out.
Meanwhile, at the Nadi Group, we continue helping developers and municipalities to transform isolated neighbourhoods into efficient and vibrant town centres that will improve the quality of living environments. Contact us!