Gentle Density, Sprawl Enemy

February 24, 2021

As I was walking Leon this weekend, I recalled a chapter in the book Happy City by Charles Montgomery about density. He writes about a density sweet spot that fosters a sense of community, but gives people enough space too. Too close, like standing on an elevator, and no one talks. Too far away, like in cars or parking lots, and no one really talks. Condo buildings, while providing considerable density, don’t foster community. The typical subdivision doesn’t either. The lack of sidewalks, or front porches keeps people from interacting. There is too much space between people.

Charles and his team found that the typical streetcar suburb provided the ideal density for people to be convivial. There is enough space between homes, that people feel they are a comfortable distance to engage, but not so far from one another that people lose the opportunity to engage. This “gentle density” appears to get the proportions just right.

As we walked around Sunday afternoon, even at 22°, we still saw plenty of our neighbors, still interacted with people coming and going from their homes and our little Main Street was still busy.

This neighborhood really nails the “gentle density” concept. From where I type, I see apartment buildings, duplexes and single family homes. Nothing more than 5 stories, everything with a bit of space in-between. The streets are well defined and this type of proximity of structures, allows a small commercial district to exist and thrive.

I see my neighbors on the way to the coffee shop and school and when we walk the dogs. We also see each other on the front porches 6 months a year. We have countless opportunities to interact and we build relationships through these interactions. I encounter the same people at the bakery and we grow familiar.

This type of density does something more than just provide community though, and the additional benefit is so often overlooked. This type of density is a sprawl buster, a national chain repellent and ideal for growing local businesses and retaining wealth in the community.

It dawned on my that my neighborhood doesn’t have an influx of national chains, because there isn’t any room for them. National retailers and restaurants require parking and there just isn’t any here. This level of density does not allow for surface parking lots and it is a sizable deterrent to the chain stores. This does not meet their business model and would indicate a place where they could not profit. The lack of available land to convert to parking has kept out the commerce carpetbaggers.

With no room for national chains, local business are given room to succeed. They are not competing with unfathomable buying power, million dollar marketing budgets and cheaply made imported goods. Local businesses are allowed to thrive because of the density. It is simply more convenient to walk a couple of blocks each day to get the things you need.

I love the idea of “gentle density” and it blows my mind that we no longer build in this manner. The right amount of proximity is good for community and good for local business. It also significantly reduces the cost of development and the cost of municipal services, by serving more people in a smaller area.

The concept is fairly simple, the design of our places dictates, to a large degree, our happiness. Shouldn’t we build places that make us happy?

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