What is Density?

Density (specifically referring to the density of urban space) has numerous definitions and methods of measurement. When we talk about density, we may define it by how many people live in an area, the size of buildings on a given site (floor area ratio or FAR) or how many homes are in an area (dwelling unit density). The lack of a universal means of measurement creates some . In addition to the lack of a universal measurement, vague definitions are also commonly used, also creating confusion. "High, medium and low" degrees of density will vary significantly both in the way they are measured (FAR? Dwelling units?) and in the level of measurement (30 DUs per acre may be "high" in one context and "medium" or "low" in another).

Often when people talk about density, certain values are implied. The term "high" density may bring up images of efficient land use, diverse communities, and lively street life to some, or dirty streets, crime and poverty to others. The term "low" density may bring up images of home ownership, pastoral landscapes, and families to some, and sprawl, isolation and bland homogeneity to others. These values arise from perceptions about real places and become attached to certain agendas. None of these values is inherently related to actual density measurements, but it can be difficult to break free from existing perceptions. It is possible to have home ownership and families in "high" density areas, and efficient land use and diverse communities in "low" density developments. When planning, it is important to separate values and qualitative ideas about density from quantitative measurements of density.

Why Care?

2008 marks the point when the world population shifted from a majority of rural dwelling people to urban dwelling people. How we plan the places we live has become increasingly important, with this boom of new and growing cities and changing demographics. The planet has limited amounts of space and resources. We need to think carefully about how we use the space we have – whether for agricultural or commercial production, residential settlements, recreation, or conservation. Haphazard greenfield development destroys animal habitats and natural fields and forests, which are vital to the health of the planet. The costs of urban sprawl have been measured by many experts over the last half century. Infrastructure and public and private services costs are directly related to the density of a city, with costs generally rising as density lowers.

Additionally, sprawling development comes with hidden and indirect costs from loss of open and agricultural space, auto dependency, and urban blight from abandonment of central city cores.  It is clear that we need to use our resources wisely, and plan for livable cities offering a high quality of life. Higher density cities will help us conserve land for wilderness habitats, environmental protection and agriculture. But can they provide a high quality of life for their inhabitants? What does it mean to live in a high density neighborhood? The case studies and literature review found on this site will help us navigate through different levels of density and patterns of urban living to better understand how we can build in ways that are conducive to a high quality of life, while at the same time can work to protect and preserve our finite resources.