My wife is on a roadtrip with her family, which has meant that I've been home alone enjoying some Fremantle Doctor time these past couple of days. I can see my wife shaking her head in shame as she reads this blog right about now, but I'll come clean and admit that I'm on a town planning and placemaking high from all of the various town planning and placemaking websites I've been reading.
One such article that I really enjoyed was about the limits of density. Everyone who was interested in the recent debate surrounding Scheme Amendment 49 may find this article (click here) by Richard Florida quite interesting.
Density has its advantages up to a point
The first premise of Florida's article is that density certainly has its advantages. He argues that denser cities are more productive, more innovative, and more energy efficient. I agree with him. What I found interesting is that he believes that density has its advantages only up to a point.
For Florida, density begins to become a problem when it takes life away from the streets. In this case, where it does not facilitate interactions and exchanges. Here is a passage from his article that clarifies his point:
"The key function of a city is to enable exchange, interaction, and the combination and recombination of people and ideas. When buildings become so massive that street life disappears, they can damp down and limit just this sort of interaction, creating the same isolation that is more commonly associated with sprawl. As Jane Jacobs aptly put it: "in the absence of a pedestrian scale, density can be big trouble." Skyscraper canyons of the sort that are found in many Asian mega-cities, and that are increasingly proposed in great American cities, risk becoming vertical suburbs, whose residents and occupants are less likely to engage frequently and widely with the hurly-burly of city life."
Applying this lesson to Freo in the context of Scheme Amendment 49, it is crucial that pedestrian scale is retained and that the public realm is set up so that as many interactions as possible can be made possible.
Cautious of the pendulum swinging to far in favour of density
Another interesting point from the article is that Florida is concerned that as a response to combating urban sprawl the pendulum could swing to far in favour of high-rise development.
"If the pendulum originally swung too far in the direction of sprawl over the past 50 years, the risk today is that it is swinging way too far back toward high-rise skyscrapers. "To oppose a high-rise building," he writes, "is to run the risk of being labeled a NIMBY, a dumb growth advocate, a Luddite — or worse. Buildings 20, 40, 60 even 100 stories tall are being proposed and built in low and mid-rise neighborhoods all over the world. All of these projects are justified with the explanation that if density is good, even more density is better."
I tend to agree with him on this point. Whilst twenty storey plus buildings are not being proposed for Freo, we should be careful to avoid a dogmatic approach when considering our options for redeveloping the city centre.
Good density shouldn't be all about high-rise, but maximising interactions and activity
For me, one of the best things about this article is when Florida argues that solely discussing density in the context of high-rise tends to miss the point and limits the conversation. In fact, Florida argues that cities that adopt a single-minded attitude to high-rise could risk becoming clone towns.
"What we need are new measures of density that do not simply count how many people we can physically cram into a space but that accounts for how well the space is utilized, the kinds of interactions it facilitates. "By this measure," McMahon writes, "one block of an older neighborhood might include a community theatre, a coffee shop, an art gallery, two restaurants, a bicycle shop, 10 music rehearsal studios, a church, 20 apartments and a couple of bars, and all with much more 24/7 activity and intensity of use than one block of (much taller) office buildings on K Street [in Washington, D.C.]."
"Too many people today conflate density with height. Real interactive density can be better achieved by other means. "Yes, we do need more compact, walkable higher density communities," writes McMahon. "But no we do not need to build thousands of look-a-like glass and steel skyscrapers to accomplish the goals of smart growth or sustainable development." Neighborhoods like Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Brooklyn’s Park Slope, and the Fan in Richmond were largely built before the age of elevators and they are all dense. New Orleans’ "French Quarter has a net density of 38 units per acre, Georgetown 22 units per acre." The real issue isn’t just height and the massing of people and work, but of enabling interaction and recombination."
My take on Florida's perspective, is that we can achieve the interaction and activity he talks about by adopting a different view of our city. Freo doesn't have to choose between being a heritage town, or a tourist town, or a place predominately for offices and shopping, or just a city of residents. It can be a kick ass combination of all of the above.
I enjoyed this article and I hope anyone that reads it does as well.