Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

For Density’s Sake!

Dateline: 11:30 am December 16, 2012 Filed under:

Today’s article in the Star Tribune, “Minneapolis Sees High-Density Future“, misses the point about city building. There is a lot of talk about density and of increasing the city’s population to the arbitrary number of 400,000 people. Density alone is not a cure all. True it is absolutely necessary to support vitality, walkability and transit usage, but density comes in many forms, and if we get to 400,000 without making the city more beautiful and livable, what is the point? The discussion of development in Minneapolis (or any city) should begin with what the street and building frontages look like, and all other considerations like density should be secondary.

Where would you rather live? A city with buildings like this…

…or buildings like this?

If you prefer the former, then you are getting it. The example is from Minneapolis, and is a portion of the ground floor of a new four-story apartment building. Four-story buildings are de-rigeur in the city, and this is an example of how the zoning code fails to ensure the ground floor of buildings. In other words, density per se is not the enemy; the approvals process that allows tepid urban design is. Four-story buildings with minimal setbacks aren’t enough. Building frontages like this should not be allowed in Minneapolis because they don’t improve the public realm. Worse, they make the public averse to density.

If you prefer the latter, well keep in mind there is a 20-plus story residential structure towering over me when I took the photo. No way, you say! How can something so dense look so good? Because the building frontage or facade at the ground level is attractive and a good neighbor to the city. Sure, this example is from Vancouver, and while some very good examples like this exist in Minneapolis, they are unfortunately the exception and not the rule. The city of Vancouver has gone to great lengths to ensure all new buildings interact well with their surrounding streets. It is a deeply-held value for Vancouver, and is quite apparent when walking around the city. Minneapolis needs to adopt this value.

At the end of the day, regardless of its density, a new residential building in a city opens, its residents move in and it becomes part of the cityscape. Life moves on; the new residents come and go and people in the surrounding community pass by every day on foot, bicycle, car, bus or train. If the ground floor looks good, it becomes a good neighbor and those passers-by forget about the fight over density. If it is done poorly, members of the community begin to believe density is bad, when in reality there may be other factors to blame, such as the zoning code, plans (or lack of specifics therein) or simple bad urban design.

We need to move past talking about whether or not to build density, because density is going to happen. We must instead focus our minds and creativity on what we want our city to look like. It doesn’t matter if the building is two stories or thirty, where the street and sidewalk (public realm) meet the building (private) is the most important issue of city-building. Get it right and the public will start to let elected officials know they want more.


  1. Excellent, Joe!

    Comment by Peter Harnik — December 20, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

  2. I read your response to the density issue. I agree for the most part but how do you ensure enough density? St. Louis has a lot of unused urban land and people sometimes plan “urban” interaction points to developments that are suburban in density. If you look at older cities whose urban areas have remained vibrant, density was always present, even if good design wasn’t. Seems like people will find ways to build retail and restaurants if the people are there (NYC) but retail and restaurants in less dense areas fail to survive (STL). Marrying density and design is ideal but what if you can’t have both? I feel like lots of people forces design, if even on the second or third iteration, because form will always follow function. Many a beautiful island remain vacant or under utilized all of the country.

    Comment by Vihar Sheth — December 21, 2012 @ 9:21 am

  3. Sam, I support your comments on urban design, but I think the heart of the problem is not design or design regulation. The heart of the problem for Minneapolis is that we need more people. Vancouver’s streetscapes are great but only possible because many people want to live there and the planners were wise enough to trade density bonuses for better urban design. So isn’t it demand that is necessary to drive higher quality architecture, more so than regulations on design?

    Comment by Noah Bly — December 22, 2012 @ 9:28 am

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