Nuances of urban density - Part 1
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul Villarete (The Freeman) - January 14, 2020 - 12:00am

When I was 51, I visited the US for the first time. My first impression of the first few cities I visited was one of inefficiency – in terms of movement and time, brought about by the kind of landscape, or rather cityscape, they built. My assessment was, of course, influenced by having visited a lot of Asian cities in the past three decades prior, and could at best, only be merely comparative. Still, city comparisons offer a good input on how we could try to shape our own.

The first word that could describe a typical American city, at least the ones I visited recently, is that they’re flat. I mean except when you go downtown, anywhere else seem to be one-story affairs. We’re so used to two-level houses, or the three- to four-floor Chinese-style apartments (with the ground floor store), that the one-floor affairs were really upsetting. Doesn’t matter whether these are houses or commercial outlets, the scenery is flat. And you wonder why – these are cities with practically no earthquake issues at all.

In October of 2018, this corner devoted a four-part series on the subject of “Compact cities.” We will try to revisit the issues concerning urban density in general. Let’s start off with an assumption that all buildings in a hypothetical city are one-level affairs. For a certain number of residents, considering all aspects of urban living, there would be required a certain area. Now, if we suppose the same city population will all have two-story affairs in all land uses, it would be acceptable to assume that the city will need only half the area of the original one we assumed. More or less. And if we assume that all buildings in all uses in that hypothetical city would be three floors, we would need only a third of the area of the hypothetical city.

That’s pure hypothesis, of course, and won’t happen in real life. What would happen, and indeed is the reality now, is that there usually is a central area where there are high-rises (colloquially called the Central Business District, or CBD), and the rest of the city tapers down in height outward. Sometimes there is more than one central area where tall buildings abound, but the rest of the area flattens. As the term signifies, the CBD is for business. Well, not exclusively, the better term is “economic center” or “labor center,” where people go to work every day – where people move, travel, commute, (whatever the term used). Everyday.

But the first truism we have to acknowledge is this: In the hypothetical city where buildings are composed of one-floor affairs, people travel twice farther each day compared to their counterparts in the hypothetical “two-floor buildings” city. The more spread out a city is, the longer are the trip distances of each resident. And since, all things being equal, travel time is dependent on distance, they need twice the amount of time, too. The less dense a city is the farther/longer you travel. Traffic congestion not yet considered (To be continued)

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