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Density Isn't a Dirty Word

If you switch lenses, density is about putting people together — not about stacking dwelling units on top of more dwelling units.

Funny thing about density: The groups for and against growth in their communities generally want the same things.

fix san diego opinionThey want a “livable” community. They want pleasant, walkable streets. They want restaurants with outdoor cafes, lots of great little shops, lots of available services and they like to run into friends on the street. They want great, human-scaled architecture. Neither group wants more traffic and congestion. Most would like to see a streetcar or some form of decent transit.

So how did the dreaded “D” word become such a contentious issue in San Diego when most everyone agrees on what they want?

Part of density’s bad name comes from the way we talk about it. You may notice that when residents talk about what we want for our communities, we talk about people and experiences.

But when the conversation turns to density, we talk about objects — number of apartments, big buildings, etc. To make matters worse, community planners talk about density as “dwelling units per acre” (du/acre), which doesn’t exactly speak to people and experiences.

READ MORE: ‘There Ought to Be Much Less Conflict When a Development Comes Along’

We, the people, intuitively get what cities are supposed to be all about.

Cities are about people, community, engagement and serendipity. When you put people together, magical things happen. Even if it is just bumping into someone on the street, studies show that social exchanges make cities more innovative, more productive, safer, economically vital and happier places to live than their outlying, isolating suburbs.

So instead of thinking about density as impersonal “dwelling units per acre,” let’s talk in terms of how people make a great city. Let’s understand density as increasing the opportunities for social exchanges between people, or “social exchanges per acre” (sx/acre). Let’s talk about people and experiences.

When you start to use social exchanges per acre as a measure of success for a community plan, you start to see everything differently.

Land use becomes about putting lots of different uses close together, so people can walk to work, stores, restaurants and services. Street design becomes about making pleasant, vibrant, walkable streets. The architecture of our buildings and the design of our public spaces become about creating places that people want to be in, sit and stay in. Density becomes about putting people together — not about stacking dwelling units on top of more dwelling units.

However, even a new way of thinking about density won’t solve San Diego’s planning woes, because, in general, our planning is not based on people. It’s based on cars.

You might think I’m exaggerating when I tell you that nearly every urban planning and design decision made today is based on how many seconds you have to sit in your car at an intersection, and where you will park the car once you’ve arrived at your destination. Success is spending fewer seconds at an intersection, and having the option to park your car for free wherever you go.

When you look at city planning from this auto-centric point of view, which most of us have been taught to do, higher density doesn’t make a lot of sense. There is obviously a huge disconnect between what people intuitively want in a great community, and what San Diego’s policies and laws dictate. The two don’t match up.

It’s no wonder that developments like One Paseo create such an outcry. While One Paseo developers are telling people what they want to hear — walkable, vibrant, pleasant — they are forced to design it for cars, widening streets so cars don’t wait at intersections, and adding more parking. People pick up on the inconsistencies.

Until San Diego policies are in sync with what people want, there will always be discord around issues like density. The first step in creating better communities is to put people first, and institute a pedestrian priority policy for all major planning decisions, including land use, mobility, urban design and economic development. When people are our No. 1 priority, adding more of them will also be valued, and density will no longer be a dirty word in San Diego.

Walter Chambers is founder of Great Streets San Diego. Chambers’ commentary has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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