- Opponents of new development often say they don’t want denser neighborhoods.
- But creating more affordable and inclusive communities requires a certain amount of density.
- A recent study found that density is necessary but not sufficient to maximize well-being.
As cities and towns across North America suffer from a housing affordability crisis stemming largely from a housing shortage, urban planners and housing advocates rail against overcrowding.
Housing advocates say more people living closer together are needed to create more affordable and inclusive neighborhoods. But many opponents of the new development say they worry about increased traffic, overcrowding schools and overshadowing residential buildings. Higher density, they arguewill change the character of their neighborhoods and harm their well-being.
“We need to increase density, especially near transit, to provide enough homes for everyone, but there’s this deep, long-standing mistrust of density,” said Tristan Cleveland, an urban planner and researcher at Canadian design firm Happy Cities.
In recent research, Cleveland and his colleagues aimed to determine how density—and other aspects of the built environment, such as housing—affect individual happiness and well-being. The study, which surveyed nearly 1,900 people living in 15 municipalities in the Vancouver region of British Columbia, found no evidence that high-density living was associated with reduced happiness, social connection or well-being. Instead, it found that a certain amount of density is necessary to maximize residents’ well-being, but not sufficient.
Well-designed density—think pedestrian-friendly streets with easy access to transit and amenities like shops, restaurants, and parks—was positively associated with well-being and happiness. But poorly designed density – such as too small apartments, little green space and wide roads – is associated with reduced well-being.
“If you put a bunch of apartment towers together without providing the things that density makes possible, like local amenities, shops, transit, then you’re not really delivering the value of density for prosperity,” Cleveland said.
Studies they found living in walkable neighborhoods, spending less time driving and commuting, and access to third places associated with better well-being and social connection, such as coffee shops and parks.
“Having everything we need close to home saves us a lot of time,” said Madeleine Hebert, housing specialist at Happy Cities, who co-authored the firm’s report. “When we save our time, we have more time to spend with our family, we have time to exercise, and to establish social relations with our neighbors.”
But a neighborhood needs a certain density to support mass transit and amenities like local shops and restaurants.
Density is necessary, but not sufficient
People in North America aren’t the only ones worried about it the more expensive their neighborhoods become. They are also looking for a sense of belonging. After affordability, respondents to the Happy Cities survey cited proximity to friends and family and “a sense of neighborhood or community” as the top elements lacking in their neighborhoods.
More than 40% of respondents said they chose to live in the neighborhood because of its proximity to social and recreational facilities such as restaurants, shops and parks. That’s compared to just 28% who prefer to be close to work and 19% who prefer to be close to schools.
But everything comes at a price. An analysis published last year found that home buyers In America’s 35 largest metropolitan areas Renters paid 34% more to live in walkable neighborhoods and 41% more.
Notably, the study found no significant relationship between the type of housing someone lives in — whether it’s an apartment or a single-family home — and their well-being.
“People can be just as happy in single-family homes as they are in townhomes,” Cleveland said. “All levels of density—in different ways for different reasons—are happily compatible.”
The only exceptions were basement apartments and very small units. Living in a basement was associated with fewer social connections and relationships with neighbors than living in an apartment smaller than 300 square feet, even with income, property status, number of amenities, etc. factors, research has found.
The researchers found that many large towers with smaller units are designed for low-income residents and lack access to community spaces and amenities. These findings are important for urban planners and developers to understand so they can incorporate design elements that promote well-being.
“If you’re designing these small units that we know are housing for our most vulnerable residents and there’s no safeguards to make sure they’re well connected to the community setting, they have social spaces in the building – if these things are not considered, then we’re doing even more harm to people’s well-being. we run the risk of building these small units that have an impact,” Hebert said.