Boston's Back Bay Photo by Rick Berk

There are a lot of people talking about density these days.  Is it good and important for sustainability? Or is it bad and hurts property values? When we talk about density, we rarely define it, but it clearly means very different things to different people.

During a recent ULI Technical Assistance Panel I was part of in Provincetown, this really came into focus for me. We were told beforehand that density was a real concern for the town, and this was reinforced over and over as we talked with residents and business owners. But as we talked, I understood that people’s meaningful concerns about density weren’t the same. Some people were worried by the bulk of buildings, and others only with their height. Concern over the number of people living on a parcel was expressed by some, while for others, it was traffic; and sometimes even the size of the building compared to the parcel was the issue.

In each case, the person used the word density, but each of them was talking about something different.

This is particularly interesting at a time when the number of households is increasing, but the number of people within each household is decreasing. Of course, as we’ve all seen on TV, the age of the McMansion is over, and many people are looking at micro-units and tiny houses as real alternatives. If you live in a house built before the world wars, I can almost guarantee that your household is smaller than the house was designed for.

Of course, not only does density mean something different to each of us, it can also mean something really different depending on your geographical location. Density in Truro is different than density in Provincetown, which is certainly different than density in Boston or Somerville. And let’s not even talk about what density means in New York City or Hong Kong.

Each community has to decide what level of density it will tolerate for itself. We cannot (nor should not) all be Hong Kong. But very often, density is exactly what creates the identity and vibrancy of a place. As household sizes decrease, creating more one- and two-person families, we need more housing units to keep the same size communities. But it is not the number of units we should be discussing; it’s how much space those units take up, and how many people live in them.

There was a great commentary recently about the illegal city of Somerville. While I understand that the city of Somerville is not for everyone, it is where I have made my home, and I love its scale and sense of community. But if you apply the zoning bylaw of today, you would not be able to build it; it’s too dense. While we need more green space and more jobs, I certainly wouldn’t want there to be fewer buildings, farther apart. I suspect that if you compared modern zoning to the current fabric of many of the places we live, we wouldn’t be allowed to build them today.

To create the places we want, for them to be unique, and be the physical manifestation of the communities we love, we have to accept trade-offs. We have to define what is important to us and let our built environment reflect those values. Just like each of our towns and cities are unique, our definitions of what density means in this place and this time have to be discussed and embraced.

Topics: Urban Design, Planning