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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

TODERIAN: Density done well

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A few months ago, I was honored to give the keynote speech at the Seattle Downtown Association’s annual “State of Downtown” event. Our audience was very interested in the challenges of what I call “density done well.”

It’s an understatement to say that the “D-Word” is a controversial subject in cities across North America, and whatever city you live in is likely no exception. One big reason is that often density is done rather poorly in many cities, so it’s no surprise it can be unpopular with both the public and politicians. It needn’t be so though, and shouldn’t be, as when it’s done well, density is immensely important to the success of cities and regions.

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
  • Mitigating climate change
  • Dramatically decreasing energy costs
  • Increasing energy independence
  • Making walking, biking and transit more inviting
  • Improving public health, diversity, creativity, safety and vibrancy

Not to mention making municipal services and infrastructure much more efficient per-capita, an issue that can literally bankrupt sprawl-based cities. Study after study has shown all of these things and more are improved with increased density, if you do it well.

My talk drew on Vancouver’s long history with successful densification within a livable, increasingly green “city by design” framework. I told the story of our challenging but award-winning EcoDensity Initiative, and our more recent efforts to become the greenest city in the world by 2020.

I stressed that densification shouldn’t be a mathematical exercise, or the product of a one-dimensional read of “highest-and-best-use.” Density done well should be a design-based approach to responsible city leadership, flowing from a city’s vision and values.

My audience may have been downtown-focused, but I’m sure they would agree that density done well is just as much about artfully adding to the inner city beyond the downtown, and building smarter suburbs that are more mixed, compact, walkable, and transit friendly. Density isn’t just a downtown thing.

Unfortunately, even gentle forms of density can be especially controversial in the suburbs. Something as simple as secondary suites in single detached homes or backyard granny/”Fonzi” suites can lead to big battles. This has to change if city-regions stand a chance of addressing their serious issues. Given all the growth that’s heading there, the battle for sustainable regions will likely be won or lost in the ‘burbs.

Density in San Francisco

So what does density done well look like? In my talk I outlined three critical components:

 1. Aligning your land-uses and how you get around

For decades, most cities in North America have separated their thinking around land-use and transportation, and the car capacity “tail” has tended to wag the land-use “dog.” This has always been a recipe for failure, resulting in car-dependent cities that ironically don’t even work for drivers.

Car-dependent transportation models create self-fulfilling prophecies of gridlock by pushing land uses apart and densities down, leading to communities that are un-walkable and not viable for transit, and force people into their cars for almost anything. And if you try to do high densities planned around the car it also fails – miserably.

Vancouver illustrates a different and better way. Starting with the refusal of freeways in the city in the late 1960’s, Vancouver continues to design a multi-modal city that prioritizes walking, biking and transit, and recognizes that “the best transportation plan is a great land use plan.”

If uses and activities are mixed and compact, with everything proximate and walkable, the “power of nearness” makes every method of getting around work better – with freedom of choice. The great “aha moment” is that it even makes the city work better for drivers.

 2. Be unashamed to have a consistently high urban design standard

Cities that “take what they can get” when it comes to urban design and architectural quality, usually get what they ask for. On the other hand, having high and clear design expectations, maximizes and protects value for both the public and private interests, something smart developers understand and appreciate.

In short, great design makes density work. High design quality emphasizes making places people love, and includes connecting to and embracing assets like Seattle’s waterfront for public use and public life.

It recognizes that building height is not a “yes or no question” but a challenge for better design. Every scale of building, tall, medium or small, should be designed creatively and beautifully, with the right scale in the right places. It’s not about “height dogma!”

Perhaps most importantly, it understands that making density work means focusing on how the buildings meet the street, and making the walking experience at eye-level at the 5 miles/hour pace of a walker, constantly visually inviting. No blank walls along the sidewalk!

 3. Amenities make density enjoyable

If you plan for too many people without the amenities that make high density living enjoyable, it often fails. Amenities support public life, and the denser it gets, the more such amenities are needed. Design your density with parks, recreational and people places; childcare and schools; and cultural, civic and heritage offerings.

On top of publicly owned amenities, density brings the population for market-driven amenities like the coffee shop, pub, grocery store and farmers market.

These amenities, public and privately owned, make density livable, lovable and successful, for all ages and for families if you design for them all.

In Vancouver, the City leverages our amenities, as well as rental/social housing, from private sector development as part of a model that makes high density work better for both developers and the existing community.

The truth is, density done well is a tougher art and science than just these three must-haves. But if you get these three right, you’re likely off to a very good start.

Density is never easy, including in Vancouver, and poorly done density deserves to be criticized. However if any city-region takes its economic resiliency, livability and sustainability seriously, density done well is a must.

photos by Evan Leeson (top) and Doug Caribb (middle)

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian



  1. Hi Brent,

    I think you’re failing to address the values that arguments for more density tend to run aground on: a sense of pride in ownership (of property), a proximity to nature, and a sense of space and openness. These are all values that many people prioritize and actively choose, and the fact is that they aren’t at all addressed pieces like this, leaving those who value them ostracized in the discussion. Combine that with advocates for density giving those who disagree with them a “get out of town” approach, I think goes a long way to explaining why the ‘holistic density’ you appear to be advocating for so often gives way to a piece-meal developer driven approach that leaves so many unhappy.

    There is just no attempt to engage those who disagree with change, or recognize their values as important, and very much a willingness to throw it to the market place and let cold economics impose its way on land use.


  2. Hi, Richard,

    With good planning, it is actually possible to combine livability with density. You may have less private space, but can have great public space to enjoy; you may not have big expanse of forest, but you can have nicely design parks and beautiful ravines. By ignoring such possibilities, NIMBies tend to fight every development with the same ferocity, and not just commercial development, but also city’s effort of improving public space (witness the opposition to expanding public library, paving a bicycle trail in a park, or even adding sidewalk to a street!). That is counter-productive and hurts everybody. If a developer has to fight just as hard to get a 6-storey building going as a 30-storey one, why would he opt for pursuing the smaller one? We need to allow appropriate density to sail through the process while firmly rejecting over-reaching ones.

  3. I know it’s a seldom discussed topic in our wintery north, but I would also add 4. Access the/to sun. Like the requirement that the developer build to the best efficiency standards, forward thinking about shade and sunlight means we can build passive solar and rooftop gardens into our building design and also calm down our neighbours when higher buildings go up – usually only takes a shift in the buildingorie ration to accomplish.

  4. Hi Richard,

    For clarity in these discussions, I like to refer to the T1 to T6 urban transect, and to the Street vs Road distinction.

    Good urbanism offers a new T-zone every five minutes (by walking, about half a kilometre). Good urbanism keeps Streets (which can be wide ‘Great Streets’ like boulevards etc., but are always pedestrian-first) distinct from Roads, which are basically anti-urban.

    So, to your points:
    1. a sense of pride in ownership (of property)
    2. proximity to nature
    3. a sense of space and openness

    1. property ownership ownership
    If you mean land ownership, the rural transects T1-T3 offer this more readily, as buildings have side setbacks, and their distance from services tends to lower property values. A T4 townhouse could be owned freehold, with adequate party-wall legislation. T5 and T6 buildings are most likely owned by investors, or collectively in strata, but you can own the condo space-between-walls. None of these prohibit ownership. Land farther from services will always be cheaper (farther from services means, by definition, farther from density, where those services – private retail, public transit etc. – can be most profitably or efficiently offered).

    2. proximity to nature
    By nature, I’m going to assume you mean T1. By proximity, I usually assume a 5 minute walk, which would mean living in a T2 (‘rural’ – think farmhouse) context, very much not urban nor a context for density. But in T2 you would be five minutes walk to suburban T3 (perhaps including basement suites and laneway houses), and another five minutes perhaps to your village main street T4.

    However by ‘proximity’ you might just mean True Road access in 30 minutes or less (e.g. driving the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Squamish). This is also a feature of good urbanism, with clear urban/rural boundaries, as opposed to forever-spaced out car-first sprawl.

    3. a sense of space and open-ness
    This is most obviously available to denizens of T2 and T3 zones. In the urban transects, space in the home can be bought by owning more land (a large mansion) and can be psychologically induced by good architecture (windows, ceiling height, light colours, etc.). In public, urban open space can be in the form of semi-public courtyards, or fully public parks and squares. None of these are incompatible with the densities offered by T4-T6 zoning.

    You mention the importance of recognizing a range of values. Good urbanism – built by the two principles above – offers homes for this range of values, by offering a range of transects. By contrast, the current use-based sprawl car-first zoning and planning model, does not recognize a range of values, but oversupplies a caricatured exaggerated T3 of spaced out single-family-houses on dendritic street networks.

    I think the biggest battles come in transforming T3 to T4, and turning stroads into boulevards. In both cases, I would always suggest starting at the intersections. Narrow, bulge and wiggle (“Do the Blackson Twist!”) and permit – nay, encourage – T4 mixed-use with strict design parameters (no garish signage) among T3 that covers more than 10 minutes’ walk: i.e. legalise corner stores. Turn larger intersections, often signalised and with gas stations or drive-thrus, into greatly slowed town centres: radical lane narrowing and sidewalk extension, on-street parking, T4 or T5 buildings up to the sidewalk. Then you can extend the stroad retrofit back along in time.

    Let me know if any of this is unclear, or if I’ve misinterpreted your concern.



  5. It is possible to require intensive green roof by-laws (with trees) to increase green space, while moderating heating and cooling costs and reducing stormwater runoff. If people want more sunlight, they can move to the countryside.

  6. @Richard while there is a market for suburban and rural living, the high values of urban properties suggests that people tend to desire city living. That said, you can have too much density, though in most of North America that is not an issue. Lewis Mumford’s book The City in History does an excellent job addressing the problems of too high a density, while also condemning sprawled cities built exclusively for the automobile.

  7. I appreciate those that are redefining Urban Living into an Art form. It is time that livability was defined. But the will of many developers continues to out weigh that of the Architects, Planners, Councillors and Citizens. Their unwillingness to involve the very benefactors in the process of redevelopment of Cites, will continue to cause the negative responses common in all Cities. It’s time for the Citizen the taxpayer to be included in the process of each development from the very beginning, as a full and meaningful partner. This is the 21st Century we have evolved. People are adapting to new styles of living but their needs for space, light, and community remains.
    Thank you