The topic of density has come under new scrutiny since COVID-19. Does density actually cause disease? What policy changes might affect how and where we build? What is the future use of city streets and public transit?
Our “Future of Density” panel on May 8 engaged six experts who spoke about how to leverage this crisis as an opportunity to transform our urban spaces for the better.
“We are coming from a place where density is part of the solution,” said Laura Aldrete, executive director of Denver Community Planning and Development. “Nothing we have seen equates density with COVID-19 risk… we believe in our [city] policies supporting healthy communities and social equity. These are good policies and we should not flinch.”
At the same time Aldrete acknowledged, “We are early in this marathon. It’s too early to make predictions or know where the market will land.”
The panel was moderated by John Desmond, president of Revitalizing Cities LLC, and former EVP of the Downtown Denver Partnership. In addition to Aldrete, it included: Jordan Block, urban design lead, HDR, Inc.; Mark Falcone, CEO/founder of Continuum Partners; and Elena Scott, principal, Norris Design. Our community partner was the College of Architecture and Planning, CU Denver.
Keynote Sara Jensen Carr, an architect and assistant professor at Northeastern University, reported on findings from her book The Topography of Wellness: Health and the American Urban Landscape, to be published early next year.
Carr has studied the responses of cities to earlier pandemics such as cholera, typhoid and yellow fever. Many urban innovations and inventions followed these painful episodes. These include the 19th widening of Parisian streets with extensive sewer systems beneath them; the creation of Central Park; tenement reform in housing; and in Pittsburgh the first municipal sewer system in the U.S.
She also cited less successful attempts to create new forms of healthy urban design, such as Le Corbusier’s towers-in-the-park social housing schemes, which eliminated the street as part of the public realm.
The reputation of density as a health risk suffers, she said, because it is often confused with crowding, which is not measured by typical real estate/planning metrics as floor-area ratios or dwelling units per acre.
“Focus on placemaking, health and equity, not density,” advised Carr.
To that point, Scott modeled schemes for “adapted streetscapes” that reprogram Main Streets away from cars and toward play spaces and tables for restaurants. She stated that parks can be reprogrammed to allow for more use with social distancing. Noting that she herself is a golfer, she diagrammed how a 136-acre golf course can be adapted for use by 4,427 families with safe distancing — vs. 144 golfers at maximum use.
Falcone, a proponent of placemaking at projects like Belmar, 9th and Colorado, and the Union Station neighborhood, said the decline in business travel is a reality that will slow the return to vibrant urban places. Current activity-generators like the Continuum-developed, 100-room Born Hotel at Union Station are operating at minimal capacity. “We don’t expect business to come back for months.”
Block said HDR was working on ideas for “health-oriented development,” including promoting active living and designing places that mitigate such health risks as living near highways.
Access the recording of this presentation on Knowledge Finder here.