Dense and Denser?
Densification has been a guiding principle in city planning long enough to show its merits, and long enough for any unexpected consequences to show up. Modern cities demonstrate both its marvels -- and mistakes. Densification’s implications are mixed, especially insofar as it may not spare us the consequences of our species-wide refusal to question our billowing human population.
Densification was never sold as a way around overpopulation. It makes sense: utilize as much urban space as possible. The more taxpayers per square kilometre, the more tax revenue to provide services. This is one reason why small towns are less attractive: fewer services, facilities, and employment opportunities thanks to their lower tax base.
By filling in empty lots and unused spaces – for denser housing, parks, playgrounds, water retention ponds, etc. – we allow our city to expand and provide more housing without destroying fertile farmland. Densification means more people to support transit; more roads and bridges (excluding Ottawa!) for better traffic flow and connectivity; more customers per block mean more shops and restaurants, and more of all people mean more specialized services – medical, psychological, recreational, cultural, even pedicures. Obviously, win-win.
However, it’s obvious that after visiting several large cities, densification becomes only part of the solution to create more comfortable and rewarding cities. Only by itself, it creates a simplistic view of the problem of creating cities that could make humanity happier in our increasingly numbers. First, one big point is that cities are not only for transportation, production, consumption and communication; cities are for human beings, not for processes. Cities are not feedlots, no matter the resemblance.
But living in these cities makes us question the effect and the value of living cheek to jowl with others, living with another’s window just outside my own kitchen window, living with others above, below, right, left, and behind.
Crime rates are one measurement, but equally important are the obscure problems generated by tight living, by the socio-psychological stressors that play out in modern cities. We find we’re paying plenty for densification’s services; our mass culture reflects those costs and stresses in the anger, angst, crassness, victimhood and aggressivity of modern culture. Anger and angst are not political positions; they’re signs of big stress.
Are there alternatives? Might we better use small towns for living (given our digital workplaces), especially for retired seniors? Should seniors be warehoused in big urban condos? Shouldn’t we also question the need for all these “services” – hospitals certainly, but more shopping malls? Online shopping actually favours small town living. Couldn’t we also talk about how to slow the population growth that is pushing us to densify?
If we don’t think about these things and examine our own life-styles, our “needs” that densification claims to provide, we may find densification is merely digging our collective hole deeper.
Surely we don’t want to remake the movie “Dumb and Dumber” as “Dense and Denser”?