Density done right: Former B.C. planning chief explains how to do it

Tue, 2013-04-30 11:19 -- Liz Enbysk

As cities start developing their smart city roadmaps, it makes sense to study lessons learned from cities that have already been there and done that. The insights summarized below from Vancouver B.C.'s former planning director on successful densification as a key to livability are a case in point.

There are a lot of differences between Vancouver, B.C. and Seattle, Washington. Vancouver is an international role model for smart cities planning and its development of a clean, green, sustainable and livable environment. Seattle has been struggling to correct its overly car-dependent transportation models and their consequences.

No, Seattle isn't doomed to continue on as a city divided by its transportation system and lacking amenities urban dwellers increasingly want.

Vancouver's former city planning director and president for the Council for Canadian Urbanism Brent Toderian told a Downtown Seattle Association that Vancouver's transformation model would be a good fit for the Pacific Northwest's largest city. In an op-ed piece in the Seattle Times, Toderian stressed what he refers to "density done well."

No, he's not a shill for developers, but he believes density is a major factor in the success of the city that wants to be the greenest in the world by 2020.

He explains:

"Density tends to be talked about as something developers want, but the list of public values from smartly done density is long: facilitating more affordable housing choices; curbing the negative impacts of sprawl; saving public money on infrastructure and services; mitigating climate change; making walking, biking and transit more inviting; and improving public health. Not bad for something often framed as being all about developer profit."

He added that Vancouver has a history of of "successful densification" in a livable city-by-design blueprint that is becoming increasingly green. Its EcoDensity Initiative may have been controversial but in the end led to the adoption of the greenest building design requirements in North America.

In his piece, he outlined three "critical components" for successful densification.

1. Align your land use with how you get around. Car dependent transportation models fragment cities by "pushing land uses apart and densities down, leading to communities that are unwalkable and not viable for transit." Gridlock is another consequence of that model, as people who have driven in and through Seattle can attest.

In the late 1960s, Vancouver said no to freeways running through the city and has maintained its multimodal theme that values and supports walking, biking and transit – and that "the best transportation plan is a great land use plan."

2. Be unashamed to have a consistently high urban design standard. Cities that don't ask for much generally don't get much. But high expectations for design standards protects value for public and private interests. And, Toderian said, developers understand and appreciate that point. High design standards focus on developing environments people want to visit and enjoy. They also connect and support assets like port city Seattle's waterfront. Getting rid of the city's Alaskan Way Viaduct will allow that to happen and removal is underway now.

Seattle should also take the walking perspective into account and make the buildings that face the street more appealing and interesting for walkers. As he says, blank walls are boring.

3. Amenities make density enjoyable. It is possible for cities to guarantee failure if they "plan for too many people without the amenities that make high-density living enjoyable." Toderian contends that as density increases, so must amenities like parks, recreational and people places, child care, schools and culturally-oriented facilities.

And if amenities are designed with families and kids in mind, they will come.