Downtown Density - Why we Need More People in our Cities

I have a pretty long list of things that I think are important to our cities: good sidewalks and parks, strong retail and office demand, great restaurants and well thought out urban design, and likely one hundred other things. But there is something that is both key to a lot of those items and is also more important than all of them in certain ways, especially now, and that is density.

How to Measure Density

When I speak about density, what I am talking about is the density of land use per parcel of land. This does not mean I think we need to squeeze hundreds of thirty storey buildings into any city and certainly not Victoria, but we might want a couple of them here. When density is being discussed in the urban context you will most often hear Floor Area Ratio (FAR) or Floor Space Ratio (FSR). I most often will be using FSR though the two terms are used interchangeably. For a visual view of FSR I highly recommend looking at Page 2 of this City of Vancouver document as it presents it very clearly. FSR is always shown as a ratio, 1:1, 3:1, 5:1 and so on. Essentially if you have a 10’ by 10’ parcel a 1:1 FSR would mean that the building would have the floor space of 100 square feet. As you see in the linked document though you can build a higher building and it may not cover the whole lot but still maintain a 1:1 FSR. When you see a 10 storey building downtown, it would almost never have a 10:1 FSR. Usually taller buildings have setbacks from the lot lines to varying degrees at different levels, so more than likely that 10 storey building will be closer to a 3:1 FSR which might be surprising. Okay so that is how FSR works. I should add that your average family home is likely 0.5:1 FSR or even less.

So why does density matter for the downtown areas of our cities? As you may have noticed in the news or at a City Council meeting, there is almost a knee-jerk reaction to most new developments, especially larger apartment buildings. They are too big, block out the sun, create wind tunnels, cause traffic jams and of course are just a way for greedy developers to make money. There may be some hint of truth to some of these things (though mostly there isn’t), instead building large apartment buildings in a downtown area is actually one of the best ways we can mitigate climate change and that trumps all of those other concerns for me. I know some of you are already saying that building new concrete buildings for people creates a net increase of carbon emissions and that is true, but people are moving into homes no matter what and we can either create new centrally located dense places to live or we can continue to clear cut forests and build highways for new suburban developments. If you picture a new 18 storey apartment building with about 100 homes in it on that single parcel of land, while it may be tall, the piece of land it takes up is quite small. Now try to imagine 100 single family homes and the amount of space they take up. Now picture the roads that have to link those 100 houses, and the wires, and the pipes, and if you are lucky sidewalks. That is a lot of stuff to build, but it gets even worse.

The link between increased urban density and lower carbon emissions is well established, thanks in part to the substantial reduction in the number of car trips that urban living allows.

When you build 100 houses, the sheer size of the parcel of land means that you are going to need to travel a fair distance (because in a city there isn’t just one set of 100 homes) to get to your work or to the grocery store. While I know that in Victoria there is an increasing amount of people that live in houses using bikes, this is not the norm, for most people they are going to drive to one or all of these destinations. With the 100 homes in the apartment building on the other hand, it will make sense, especially if there is more than one building, to have lots of commercial space near by or offices to work and those residents are definitely more apt to walk or bike and if the option exists, take transit.

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So what does all this have to do with ratios and density? Well, when it comes to growing downtown areas we have a couple of problems. First, like I said, people have a knee-jerk reaction to new big buildings downtown, especially if they are replacing a smaller building or even a vacant lot. Some of this reaction to change I can understand, though there are a couple reactions that I find more challenging. First, those that think that downtown apartment buildings somehow are not better a better way to live than a single family house. This is a large group at least in Victoria. Greer Rasmussen, a great blogger in New Zealand wrote:

“Manhattan is one of the most carbon friendly cities per capita in the developed world. This seems counterintuitive because all the concrete, glass, large buildings and heavy traffic look like an environmental disaster - but this is far from the case. The small average area of its housing, a transport system that favours walking, cycling and public modes of transport, and its highly concentrated land use mean residents generate significantly less carbon than those living in smaller suburban cities and towns.”

The case for housing density in the face of climate change 2017

Yes, definitely counter-intuitive I know, but learning to live in a small urban space isn’t just about the size of your home, it means having to make choices about how you move about the city and what you can actually consume because you don’t have a giant basement to hide things away. This means that your carbon footprint is going to likely be much smaller than your average suburban dweller.

A second group I see that can often put up road blocks to the densification of downtown and nearby regions are those that decry the “gentrification” of neighbourhoods that new construction apparently represents. To be fair, there is a real challenge that can be experienced by those living in a neighbourhood if a large amount of market housing comes in and at he same time there is a loss of older market rentals, but in our Victoria context at least, we have put in some mitigation strategies. We also have provincially mandated rent control and as has been seen so far locally we have not had a huge loss of residential stock to build new buildings. For the most part, the projects that have been added are going up on top of older commercial spaces or on vacant lots. In any event, there are tools for cities to prevent “gentrification” through bylaws, development cost charges and high quality urban planning. The City of Seattle also has a good strategy which is detailed in this Seattle Times article. Plus, not building new residences when you have an influx of new people will lead to gentrification a lot faster as we have actually seen in Victoria. One of the key reasons we have such tiny vacancy rate for both rentals and condominiums is precisely because we have not built enough new buildings to keep up with our growing population and that has directly resulted in higher prices for everyone.

I think that the Seattle model actually has some great benefits over what we are doing here in Victoria. While there are positive points to the new policy we have enacted, I think it is overly political and goes in with that previously mentioned mentality of developers just being greedy. They are in a business though and it should generate a profit, but there are ways to do it so that it is mutually beneficial for the city as well.

The top things I think we need to be doing are:

  1. Lift downtown and nearby FSRs to a reasonable level and in addition to having maximum FSRs, actually zone in minimum FSRs because those prime downtown lots don’t get turned over too often. Build too small and we pay a price for generations.

  2. Start looking for new areas to add density well in advance so that people can be prepared for the eventual start of the buildings coming in. In the Victoria context, I am looking at the NotCh!

  3. Have more nimble policies than blanket affordable housing quotas, we need high quality projects downtown too and quality materials cost money. Keep in mind that it is the City’s fault through years of forcing developers to chop floors off buildings and lower their FSRs that we ended up with an under-built downtown.

  4. Start coming up with benefits for large home sizes in downtown buildings rather than just for affordable housing. The current average unit size is still way to small for families and it is families that are moving to Langford. The Capital had a recent story on the demographics of Langford and can be read here.

That list is just a start, there are a lot of things that need to be done to make the downtown areas of our cities into the large urban communities that they are supposed to be, but having people live in them is the first step. No matter what, it is clear that densification is perhaps the easiest way for us to mitigate our impact on the planet. There are added bonuses though. Adding a large amount of housing in excess of population growth will also increase housing affordability. And having all those people downtown means that businesses will have ready customers. Another thing, those downtown residents might have a little more money because they are unlikely to be paying for multiple cars or a snow blower, that is a boon for a downtown restaurant!

What are some ideas that you have for increasing density downtown? How can we show people the benefit?

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PS And totally off-topic, there has been a little addition to the Sidewalking household which means that you might not see quite as many posts going up as I have been doing recently, but don’t worry they will keep coming :)