Who’s afraid of a little density?

Urban density–do you love it or hate it?  Not many people seem to be in between.  Many city planners promote high urban density because they think it is better for the environment and makes transit easier.  Many developers like it because they can make higher profits by putting more units on a lot.  Many residents like it because they can live so close to their jobs and to amenities like great restaurants and stores.

But other people don’t like high-density environments.  They feel crowded.  They don’t like the noise.  They don’t think there is enough space for their kids to run around.

So, what should we do?  Is there a way to make high-density environments that work for everyone?  Or, can we make them work for more people?  How can we make density more livable?  How can we make dense neighborhoods great places to live?

If we want to make density more appealing–more livable (and less scary)–we need to find ways to improve the infrastructure in dense neighbourhoods.  In order to discuss this, though, we need to distinguish two kinds of infrastructure–“hard” infrastructure and “soft” infrastructure.  Also, we should be clear about who the “we” is in the questions above.

So, what is “hard” infrastructure?  This refers to the physical environment.  Spaces such as community gardens, activity rooms, spacious lobbies, playgrounds, or other physical amenities, are all examples of hard infrastructure.  “Soft” infrastructure, on the other hand, refers to activities and groups such as neighborhood events, farmer’s markets, recreational clubs, and neighborhood associations.  Do you see now why it is important to be clear about who “we” are in the above questions?

Those who are responsible for hard infrastructure might include city planners, developers, architects, and special interest groups.  Those who end up living in neighbourhoods–the end users of these spaces–almost never get a say in how these spaces will be shaped.  So, if you’re not in the former group (planner/developer/architect/interest group), you’re probably not in the “we” group that will be creating better hard infrastructure.

What does that leave?  That’s right, the soft infrastructure.  If you’re a resident in a dense neighbourhood, this is where you come in.

Would you like to have a neighbourhood event?    Organize one!  Want a farmer’s market?  Set one up!  Running club?  Start with a buddy.  Neighbourhood association?  Speak with your neighbours.  Find out what you and your neighbours have in common and how you would like to improve your neighbourhood.  Pass out some flyers and have a meeting.

You’re busy?  Good!  So are your neighbours.  Sharing the load will make things easier.  Besides, there are resources (and often funding) for all of these soft infrastructure improvement options.

Dense neighbourhoods have special challenges.  They also have special opportunities, not the least of which is access to a lot of people who are interested in improving their neighbourhood.  If you live in a dense urban environment, what will you do to make your neighbourhood a great neighbourhood?

Want to learn more?  See “Maintaining a sense of community in high-density neighborhoods” and “How does residential density relate to residents’ sense of community?” by Eric Douglas.

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