Sustainable cities: embracing density

Sustainable cities: embracing density

By Amy Huva

January 27, 2012

Centre lane in Melbourne near one of Amy's favourite cafes

I am a city girl, through and through. I love big cities; the skyscrapers, the way a city is lit up at night, the convenience of things never closing, and having a great fascinating mass of humanity right on my doorstep. Some of my favourite places in the world are big cities, and I’d move to New York in a heartbeat if someone offered me a job there.

When I lived in Canberra (pop. 350,000), one of my favourite things to do when visiting ‘big city’ Melbourne (pop. 4million) was to go down Centre Lane on a busy lunchtime weekday to get a latte and focaccia, and just be surrounded by all the hustle and the bustle and the noise. I found it so relaxing being in the middle of everything again.

More than 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050 according to the UN. So when urban planners and sustainability planners say that the future of sustainable living is going to be in cities,  I say everyone get on board! While obviously not everyone is going to have the same level of love for cities as I do (or the horrified aversion to suburbia and commuting), in our transition to a low carbon economy, people are going to have to start being more realistic about how much space they actually need. Not everyone gets their own bathroom, there may not be a whole lot of storage space, you may have to get used to living with less stuff accumulating, and possibly lose the object d’art in the grand entranceway (and maybe the entranceway itself).

Inspiration courtesy of Ikea

However, on the upside – in smaller spaces you save on heating large rooms, cleaning all those additional bathrooms, and gas for the commute. The point is, environmentally we can’t keep expanding to new greenbelts to build McMansions  and with the rising price of gas, soon it won’t be economical to drive in from beyond Maple Ridge to downtown Vancouver where most jobs and amenities are still located.

The cultural change is going to be two-fold: increasingly densified business and economic centres will create their own regional hubs, removing the need for those who like their wide open spaces to have to go downtown; and previously low-rise inner-suburban areas (especially those along transit corridors) will become more densified.

Suburbs will change; more people will move in, there will be more things to do in your area, and despite what some residents may think- being near the skytrain actually makes your property more desirable (and makes it less of a pain for your non-car friends to visit you!). I always think of the boulevards of Paris (another place I’d live in a heartbeat if only I spoke French) as a beautiful example of densification; eight stories high on either side, yet eminently liveable.

Cities will change in the next decade; density will increase and people will have to get used to suburbs no longer being as it was forever ago (I’m looking at you Baby Boomers!). But it’s not a bad thing. I think that the future of sustainable cities is one of collaboration with communities and increased urban density. And that can be a great thing.

Further reading :
Richard Florida, Who’s your City?
Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City
David Owen, Green Metropolis

(New York and Melbourne photos courtesy Amy Huva, Ikea photo courtesy Ikea)

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