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Density's Not Done!


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222 Taylor, transit-oriented housing in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, offers no parking and 113 affordable family homes, with a residential density of 221 units/acre. Image: Bruce Damonte

By David Baker, FAIA; Daniel Simons, FAIA; and Amanda Loper, AIA

Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S., some pundits, politicians, and even epidemiologists were quick to blame the spread on urban density. And it’s true that the virus spread exponentially in some dense cities—New York City in particular—which within three weeks of its first identified case had 5 percent of the world’s confirmed cases.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is looming large in our minds. But we should remember that we—humanity—have been here before: During the 20th Century alone, three pandemics—one in 1918–1919, one in 1957–1958, and one in 1968—each killed more than 100,000 people in the United States. And tragically but likely, there will be more pandemics in the future.

The design of 222 Taylor prioritized open green space—a scarcity in the area—in the form of a large at-grade community courtyard and a rooftop farm. Image: Bruce Damonte

But to promote the idea that we should all flee urban centers to live in suburban and rural areas is extremely short-sighted. Density itself isn’t a danger—it all comes down to being prepared and having the right policies in place. That includes taking significant steps to reduce the structural inequalities that COVID-19 has made all too clear, given the toll that the disease has taken in BIPOC communities, which are more likely to be in viral hotspots with less access to healthcare, more likely to lose jobs due to the pandemic, and more likely to occupy frontline jobs as essential workers. Cities remain the most efficient place for humans to live: They are better for the climate, and with the right policies in place, they offer more opportunities for equitable living.

 

Consider that many cities around the world, like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo, have managed the pandemic better than New York City, despite being much denser. And even in New York City, the densest boroughs weren’t the ones that COVID-19 hit the hardest—the more suburban boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens suffered the most. San Francisco took steps early on to halt the pandemic, and that has resulted in far fewer deaths and much less disruption and fear than in Los Angeles—a much more sprawling city. It’s all about policy, not density.

 

Five88 provides 200 units of workforce housing near downtown San Francisco, with the goal of helping working families stay in the city. Image: Mariko Reed

Recently, we talked to Community Housing Partnership, one of our nonprofit clients, who manage SROs in the Tenderloin—highly dense multifamily buildings with very small units. You might think that COVID-19 would be having a field day in those conditions, but among their population of thousands of tenants, they had only seen two cases to date.

At Five88, the open-air ground floor offers sheltered amenities linked across a flexible central courtyard. Image: Mariko Reed

Balconies and private decks at Five88. Image: Mariko Reed

If we create more high-density housing—more units per acre—that is available to low-income people, then the residential density—people per unit—would be reduced. People-per-unit is a main way that viruses spread, not units-per-acre. 

 

Density can be wonderful, but it does need certain components to make it work. Where climate-appropriate, open air exterior space and open corridors are key to long-term pandemic response and prevention. When bolstered by sufficient ventilation, outdoor space, and private open space, homes with a small footprint close to transit, jobs, and services are still the way to go.

 

Richardson Apartments—run by Community Housing Partnership—places high-density homes in close proximity to retail, transit, jobs, and community amenities. Image: Bruce Damonte

Two high density neighbors in the heart of Hayes Valley frame San Francisco City Hall. On the left, 388 Fulton offers market-rate micro-units; on the right, Richardson Apartments provides studio homes for formerly homeless residents. Image: Bruce Damonte

If cities and affordable housing developers would adopt codes and guidelines to allow and encourage density-friendly features—decks and balconies, open-air circulation, wide sidewalks, and slow streets—then high-density housing would be much safer, not to mention a great deal more pleasant. We recognize that there is an added initial financial cost to including balconies, for example, and that there is in some cases an added challenge to managing buildings with these spaces. But, in the long run—especially in light of a pandemic—we’re seeing that access to open space is an invaluable asset for both mental and physical health.

 

David Baker noticed that in Copenhagen almost all the new housing included a deck or patio. He asked a Danish architect if there was a code requirement to provide private outdoor space for dwellings, and the architect was puzzled as to why there would need to be such a requirement, as the Danes think not including private outdoor space would be “immoral.”

Private balcony and open-air stair at Onizuka Crossing, affordable housing in Sunnyvale, California. Image: Bruce Damonte

855 Brannan in San Francisco combines private stoops and balconies with a central courtyard planted with a shared redwood grove. Image: Bruce Damonte

There are many challenges to navigate as the country continues to reopen. Restarting the economy means resuming commutes, and if workers avoid public transit, that will result in traffic gridlock so catastrophic it risks grinding the economy to a halt. We have to figure out how to use public transit safely. Cities like Seoul, which rely even more heavily on the subway, have managed to control COVID-19 with great effectiveness and have modeled ways to restore commuter confidence in riding public transit. 

 

This ongoing pandemic has given us a clear demonstration of what happens when we don’t prepare. Retreating into self-denial ends up costing us. We can apply the lessons learned in our approach to climate change. (Not least because of the evidence that climate change can increase the risk of pandemics.) That means embracing density, as Carol Galante eloquently argues in this recent New York Times Opinion piece.

 

Density is still one of our strongest tools to combat climate change, and we need to work together to be sure it is a functioning tool used properly. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of density’s death are greatly exaggerated.


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Image: Anne Hamersky

David Baker, FAIA, LEED AP, is a Principal at DBA. He founded David Baker Architects in 1982 and is considered an industry leader in urban and affordable housing design. You can contact David here

Daniel Simons, FAIA, LEED AP is a Principal at DBA. With more than 20 years of architectural experience—in design, construction documents, and construction administration—Daniel has focused on the field of multifamily housing. You can contact Daniel here

Amanda Loper, AIA, LEED AP, is a Principal at DBA. She established and leads DBA_BHM, our southeastern office in Birmingham, Alabama. Her diverse projects include affordable housing, market-rate housing, commercial buildings, and policy studies. You can contact Amanda here.

 

222 Taylor, transit-oriented housing in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, offers no parking and 113 affordable family homes, with a residential density of 221 units/acre. Image: Bruce Damonte

The design of 222 Taylor prioritized open green space—a scarcity in the area—in the form of a large at-grade community courtyard and a rooftop farm. Image: Bruce Damonte

Five88 provides 200 units of workforce housing near downtown San Francisco, with the goal of helping working families stay in the city. Image: Mariko Reed

At Five88, the open-air ground floor offers sheltered amenities linked across a flexible central courtyard. Image: Mariko Reed

Balconies and private decks at Five88. Image: Mariko Reed

Two high density neighbors in the heart of Hayes Valley frame San Francisco City Hall. On the left, 388 Fulton offers market-rate micro-units; on the right, Richardson Apartments provides studio homes for formerly homeless residents. Image: Bruce Damonte

Richardson Apartments—run by Community Housing Partnership—places high-density homes in close proximity to retail, transit, jobs, and community amenities. Image: Bruce Damonte

Private balcony and open-air stair at Onizuka Crossing, affordable housing in Sunnyvale, California. Image: Bruce Damonte

855 Brannan in San Francisco combines private stoops and balconies with a central courtyard planted with a shared redwood grove. Image: Bruce Damonte

Image: Anne Hamersky