Most of us know that urban densification is crucial to city health in Canada. Denser cities lead to more effective infrastructure, less transportation by car, and therefore fewer carbon emissions, shorter travel times, and less energy consumption. But what about suburban densification? How can this help fight climate change and improve our mental health?
What is Suburban Densification?
Suburban densification is the concentration of infrastructure, shops, and housing within suburbs. When we hear “densification,” we often think of making the downtown of our cities bigger and taller, but the same benefits can come from making suburbs denser. In reality, high-rise buildings tend to emit much more carbon throughout their life than dense, mid-rise buildings. Suburban densification involves:
- Increasing job opportunities within the suburbs.
- Increasing the density of shops and restaurants.
- Integrating residential and commercial areas.
- Fitting more housing into a smaller space.
The Benefits of Denser Suburbs
Part of the appeal of suburban living is being able to live in a quiet and calm neighbourhood, away from the bustling city. However, this often requires long commutes to the city center, where more jobs are located. In 2022, the average Canadian spent 54 minutes commuting to work daily. If jobs were to be more concentrated in the suburbs, then travel times would drastically decrease amongst commuters.
But work isn’t the only place we drive to. People often take their vehicle for ‘short’ trips to the grocery store, our kids’ schools, restaurants, friends’ houses, and recreation activities. A family’s yearly gas consumption decreases by 400 litres every time density doubles. This statistic has particular significance to suburban planning, as it is much easier to double the density of a suburb than a city center.
In many suburbs, it takes a while to escape the rows of houses and reach the commercial world. Forgetting milk at the grocery store can cost an extra 20 minutes of driving for one item. Shops must be more easily accessible from the suburbs to reduce driving time and incentivize alternative transportation methods. This doesn’t mean there should be a Walmart at every street corner, or that housing will be put on top of stores. It just means that individual residential zones need to be smaller and allow commercial areas to fit in between them.
Densification leads to less time spent in cars. The first main advantage of this is reduced emissions, helping fight the climate crisis as well as having healthier air in cities. The second factor is that driving is taxing on people’s health. When we walk or bike instead of driving, our physical and mental health improve, partly due to the benefits of physical exercise and spending time outside. When our suburbs are denser, walking or biking is much easier. Taking public transportation can remove the stress of driving and make our days overall less taxing. With denser suburbs, public transportation will be more concentrated and therefore more accessible.
Densifying Existing Suburbs
Obviously, we can’t just squish entire suburbs closer together to increase density. But, we can ensure more tightly-packed suburbs in the future.
We can start finding empty spaces between suburbs and filling them instead of always spreading outwards. There are often vacant plots of land between residential developments because these plots aren’t large enough for entire new developments. But, by incentivizing development in these so-called “nooks and crannies,” suburbs will become much denser and, therefore, more sustainable and accessible. Developers will not simply choose these places in a vacuum, but subsidies for development in these smaller areas and stricter limits to outward expansion can ensure that these spaces do not go to waste.
Planning for the Future
Unfortunately, suburban expansion is nearly inevitable as the population increases and more and more people move to these urban centres. When we have no choice but to create new developments, we must plan them to be denser. This densification includes more townhouses and multiple-story housing, packing single homes closer together, and having much denser storefronts.
Much as there is a glorification of single-family homes, they are a direct cause of urban sprawl, losing all of the benefits of a denser suburb. Once one family may decide they are better off living in a single-family home, others start to do the same, threatening the health of everyone living in these suburbs. Single-family homes also use more energy and emit more carbon.
But, there will always be a demand for this minimum-density housing, so we must encourage the minimisation of wasted space between them. Large yards lack any ecological benefit, and the same social benefit can be obtained through enlarging communal parks and green spaces. This will result in a net density increase and support more biodiversity. Most Canadians aren’t using their backyards at all times, while parks are rarely overcrowded, especially if we increase their size and accessibility.
With all this housing, people will need to buy personal items. In Canadian suburbs, these areas are often free-standing or in strip malls. This style takes up more space with little benefit for the consumer over two-to-three-story shopping areas. While it may be easy for companies to expand outwards during the development of these commercial areas, regulations could ensure their densification. In addition, as residential density increases, residents will demand more stores in a smaller area, leading to a natural densification of storefronts. We can get more compact commercial areas by building upwards, minimising spaces between stores, or going underground, as in many urban centers. This can be done by simply building them this way, to begin with, or by ensuring structural support of single-story stores are sound enough to allow for expansion upwards once demand increases.
Suburbia has as important a role in densification as urban centres do. The changes outlined here can be easily implemented with government regulation and social pressure. Densification won’t change the calm appeal of suburbs; they aren’t going to turn into lower Manhattan. All we need to do to increase urban health and decrease carbon emissions is have a dense plan for future developments and find ways to densify our current ones.
AuArchitecture. “Medium Density Development.” ArchitectureMagazine, 31 May 2017, www.architectmagazine.com/project-gallery/medium-density-development. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
Authors, Race to a Cure. “The 5 W’s of Urban Sprawl.” Race to a Cure, 13 Apr. 2021, www.racetoacure.org/post/the-5-ws-of-urban-sprawl. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
Gielen, Christoph. “Urban Sprawl in the United States: 10 Incredible Aerials.” TwistedSifter, 22 July 2010, twistedsifter.com/2010/07/urban-sprawl-aerials-christoph-gielen/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
Glaeser, Ed. “The Benefits of Density.” Lsecities.net, Dec. 2020, urbanage.lsecities.net/essays/the-benefits-of-density. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
Karpinska, Lilia, and Sławomir Śmiech. “Shadow of Single-Family Homes: Analysis of the Determinants of Polish Households’ Energy-Related CO2 Emissions.” Energy and Buildings, vol. 277, 15 Dec. 2022, p. 112550, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378778822007216, 10.1016/j.enbuild.2022.112550. Accessed 2 Feb. 2023.
Mallach, Alan. “Densifying Suburbs Is the Better Path to Housing Affordability.” Shelterforce, 10 Aug. 2020, shelterforce.org/2020/08/10/densifying-suburbs-is-the-better-path-to-housing-affordability/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
ThinkInsure. “Commuting in Canada | Commuting Stats, Times, Facts, Tips.” Www.thinkinsure.ca, 2 Dec. 2022, www.thinkinsure.ca/insurance-help-centre/commuting-times-and-facts-in-canada.html. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.West, Ed. “Suburban Street after Densification.” UnHerd, 29 Jan. 2020, unherd.com/2020/01/roger-scrutons-solution-to-the-housing-crisis/suburban-street-after-densification/. Accessed 1 Feb. 2023.
- Responsible Investing and Banking – How To Manage Money for the Planet - November 17, 2023
- Coral in The Caribbean, What’s Next? - November 3, 2023
- Key Concepts to Understanding Climate Change Simplified - October 13, 2023