Among urban planners, increased residential densification is widely regarded as a social good. Planners argue that greater density will help cities address an affordable housing shortage and achieve sustainability objectives. However, despite evidence to the value of density, communities throughout North America persistently oppose new developments and housing projects in their neighborhoods.
What would a residential neighborhood feel like if more people were added? Would it be perceived as vibrant and lively, or crowded and congested? In the article "The Impact of Residential Densification on Perceptions of Public Space," in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 87, No. 2), Jordi Honey-Rosés and Oscar Zapata attempt to answer these questions through a field experiment. The authors hypothesized that this research will help planners consider the tradeoffs associated with increasing density in residential neighborhoods.
The experiment took place on a pedestrianized green street that traverses a residential community in Vancouver, British Columbia. Over a three week period, additional pedestrians and stationary users were introduced to the greenway at a variety of daytime hours. The authors used an intercept survey to measure perceptions and attitudes of the other users during treatment and control hours.
The study found that adding more users to the greenway slightly reduced the perceived quality of the space overall. Increased activity caused respondents to perceive the greenway as more crowded, noisier, and less welcoming. There were some statistically significant differences between men and women, namely that women felt slightly less welcome and had more negative perceptions of the greenway when there were additional users.
Figure 3: A comparison of mean Likert scores of surveyed public users during typical conditions (without additional public users) and during the experimental treatment (with people).
The authors also hypothesized that frequent users of the greenway would be more sensitive to additional people compared to first-time or occasional users. However, the experiment did not demonstrate that local residents had a strong negative reaction to the increased density. Unexpectedly, it was first-time visitors who found the greenway more crowded, less interesting, more vibrant, and of lower quality overall when additional users were present.
The experimental nature of the study makes it noteworthy in the literature. While this study is hardly conclusive evidence towards the effects of densification, it does add a new and valuable lens to the discussion. For all the conversation about "data-driven planning," there is a noticeable absence of experimental data in the academic literature.
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Top image: Vancouver, British Columbia. Flickr/Paul Krueger (CC BY-NC 2.0)
About the author
Gemma Holt is a Master in Urban Planning and Master in Public Policy candidate at Harvard University.