Does density hurt happiness?

Our new study says no.

Colourful illustrated graphic showing a community with different scales of housing density, from single family home, to townhouses and multiplexes, to low, mid and high rise towers. People are walking, playing, socializing, and travelling through the scene
People can be happy at many different scales of housing density. (Happy Cities)

Jan. 17, 2024

By Tristan Cleveland

Housing prices are skyrocketing across North America in part because cities have not built enough homes. According to the CMHC, British Columbia needs to build an additional 560,000 homes by 2030—on top of what developers are already on track to build—to tackle housing affordability. 

In response, governments are taking action. In November 2023, British Columbia announced plans to allow tall buildings on any land within 400 or 800 metres of high-frequency transit across the province. B.C. will also allow three to six units per lot in all cities, and will ban minimum parking requirements (which often discourage development). The decision follows similar changes by Oregon and California

These proposals have been met with major pushback. “Higher density tends to decrease livability,” one Oregon resident said at a public hearing on the state’s housing bill. “It translates to less green space, fewer trees, loss of privacy, loss of views, more noise and traffic.” Others have called single-family homes “the most desirable housing type,” and worry that replacing them with fourplexes or duplexes will undermine home values.

But does denser housing undermine happiness? Vancouver Coastal Health hired Happy Cities to study this question. 

In 2023, we surveyed nearly 1,900 residents throughout the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and asked them about the buildings they live in. We also assessed their wellbeing, covering such topics as:

  • Their general happiness
  • Their physical and mental health
  • The strength of their social ties, such whether they have friends, family, and neighbours they can confide in or call on for help
  • Their sense of trust in their neighbourhod, measured with questions like, “If you lost a wallet… how likely do you think it would be returned to you?”
  • Their sense of belonging

We also measured the objective qualities of people’s neighbourhoods, such as the density of their community, the distance they live from transit, and the availability of nearby parks. 

Map of the Metro Vancouver region, showing the location of 1900 survey responses as blue dots on the map. the responses are concentrated in the City of Vancouver, the densest area in the region, but spread outwards into all surrounding municipalities
Map of 1,886 survey respondents in Metro Vancouver. (Licker Geospatial and Happy Cities)

Findings: Density can support happiness, if we design it well

Our clearest result is that density is not associated with lower happiness. People can be happy in single family homes, duplexes, townhomes, or high-density apartment buildings. And they can be unhappy in these places. 

What does matter for wellbeing is whether people have access to local shops, services, jobs, and other destinations. Residents who had a shorter commute to work were more likely to have social ties with their neighbours, and reported greater overall happiness. People who live near parks were more likely to feel a sense of trust towards their neighbourhood, measured with the question, “If you lost your wallet, do you think you would get it back?” In communities where residents reported a greater sense of trust and belonging, meanwhile, people felt greater overall happiness and social connectedness.

When we asked residents about why they chose to live in their neighbourhood, the most common responses were proximity to transit (selected by 52%), shops and restaurants (46%), and outdoor spaces (43%). The only other factor that ranked this high was affordability (47%). This is important for developers and local governments to know: People want to live in complete communities with easy access to transit, shops, and parks.

These types of communities are good for health and happiness. Research suggests that when people live close to jobs, shops, and transit, they are more likely to have social connections, live an active lifestyle, be healthy, and feel happy. Density is essential to deliver these benefits—it is difficult to open a local corner store, or to provide high-quality transit, if not enough people live within walking distance

However, density by itself is not enough. If density is located in a place with wide roads, large blocks, or with single-use zoning, it has little impact on reducing commute times, encouraging physical activity, or on enabling people to open local businesses.

Density therefore can help communities achieve a high-quality of life, but only if local governments leverage it to provide the things that really matter: convenient, pedestrian-friendly communities where people can enjoy walking to shops and often run into friends on the street.

Housing design matters, too

Some kinds of housing, however, were correlated with happiness in our study. Basements (and other lock-off suites inside houses) were associated with lower social connections compared to all other housing types. People who lived in the smallest apartment units—below 300 square feet—also reported lower health and happiness on average, even when controlling for income. (For comparison, the median condo in Vancouver is 849 square feet.)

That said, not all studies find small units are necessarily harmful. Studies in Australia and the United States have found that residents can be reasonably happy with very small units, so long as the furniture in those units are specifically designed for this size, and the units are located in high-amenity areas. Such units can match the needs of, for example, young people who may be willing to live in a smaller unit in exchange for being near to jobs, amenities, and nightlife.

However, there is a risk that these units will instead become the last resort for low-income households. Our study found that, in Metro Vancouver, the smallest units were more likely to house low-income people and people with disabilities, who might struggle in small units that are not designed to meet their needs. Small units do not replace the need for government-funded affordable housing.

Finally, it is important to design high-quality dense housing that offers people enough space and light, and to apply strategies to ensure housing fosters strong social connections, such as providing shared amenities, green spaces, and balconies. 

Strategies for ensuring density improves happiness

Our study did not support the worst fears that dense housing undermines quality of life. People living in duplexes, townhomes, or apartments were no more likely to feel unhappy than those living in single-family homes. Instead, our research finds that to successfully nurture happier, healthier communities, density needs to be designed well. Here are a few evidence-based ideas:

  • Provide the foundations for walkability: There are core features that all communities need to support local businesses and streetlife, including short blocks, slow traffic, safe sidewalks, greenery, high-frequency transit, and protected bike lanes. 
  • Build high-quality local parks: Parks are especially important for the happiness of people living in apartments who do not have their own backyard, and are linked with stronger social trust in our study.
  • Foster street-level businesses: Close access to shops and services enables a healthy, active, convenient lifestyle. Our study suggests that local shops are also one of the highest priority assets residents look for in homes. (For ideas on how to attract businesses, check out this article).
  • Provide porches and low-rise balconies where possible: If people have large porches or balconies within the first four stories of a building, they can comfortably talk with people on the street, which supports social connections
  • Prioritize non-market, affordable, and social housing. In our research, a lack of affordability and housing security was closely linked to lower wellbeing and social connections. Cities need both market and non-market housing options that meet the needs of diverse residents, and allow low-income residents to remain in their communities and live near to transit and essential services.
  • Implement design guidelines to promote wellbeing in new developments: Municipalities can establish policies to implement the latest research on how to design multi-unit housing that fosters inclusion, health, and social connection.

Density is like the pillars of a bridge. Yes, pillars are essential, but you can’t get across a river on pillars alone, without the other parts of the bridge. Density plays a crucial role in supporting a high-quality of life, but density alone is not enough. Communities also need affordable housing and social, pedestrian-friendly design.

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