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Dense City, Thriving City

Is density a key metric for determining how livable a city is? It's a possibility. The Kennedy School's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and the Boston Society of Architects recently held a forum at Harvard (called "The 'D' Word") to discuss density in urban planning, and the ways in which a denser city is a more efficient, safer, and ultimately more lively city. The Harvard Gazette has a run-down of the forum.

In certain ways, the debate between density and its opposite - sprawl - has been going on for the past half-century, said Charles Euchner, the executive director of the Rappaport Institute, who moderated and helped organize the event.

"There's been an ongoing struggle to strengthen the city core, but not always to increase urban density. What's new, I think, is that we're realizing cities are really about people. The more people you bring in, the more vibrant the city will become," Euchner said.


According to the pro-density argument, urban institutions require a certain threshold population to support them. If not enough people want to shop or eat out, there won't be many good stores or restaurants. If the audience for music, theater, or art is small, these activities will not flourish. If the tax base is scanty, schools and municipal services will be substandard. Even parks need people to use them, and if the parks are deserted, they will not receive the upkeep they need to remain attractive.

Density is also considered good for the environment because it is easier and cheaper to provide heating, electricity, sewerage, and other services to people living in concentrated groups than to those in single-family homes in suburban areas. As a result, the impact of dense populations on the surrounding environment is less harmful.

As the Rappaport Institute site puts it, "[the] argument for density is simple: The more people live in an area, the more that area can offer economic activity, social networks, political engagement, and public service." While this argument is a clear reaction to the preference for suburban sprawl in the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, it also puts a stake in the heart of the "we'll all move out to the wilderness and telecommute" futurist craze of the late 1990s. The question now becomes, how can we make sure that dense urban environments work as well as they should?

(via nicolas nova)

Comments (2)

Stefan Thomas:


Try this site: www.1h05.com/diad/ if you want another perspective on urban concentration.


The Rappaport take is interesting and clealy demonstrable... given the technology to handle the density. Tokyo, with roughly 16 million people living in its limits, is one of the most smoothly running cities in the world. The sheer volume of people moved by the Tokyo Subway system on a given day is astounding, especially when you consider the frequency (minutes) and punctuality (legendary... train officials give workers "excuse" notes if the trains cause them to be late).

Now contrast Tokyo with Cairo or Calcutta.

Basically, if the infrastructure is there to handle it, density is good. Otherwise, it's a catastrophy waiting to happen.


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