Don’t fear density: BC’s housing targets can be a wellbeing win

More housing is coming for 10 B.C. municipalities. Here are three ways that density can boost community health and wellbeing.

photo of a street level cafe on a tree-lined with apartments above. In front of the low rise apartments, people sit at tables and chairs at the street corner and socialize, as a man walks by with a dog
People socialize outside a street-level café on a pleasant, walkable neighbourhood street. (Emma Avery / Happy Cities)

Jun. 8, 2023

On May 31, the Province of British Columbia announced that it will set new housing targets for 10 B.C. municipalities, including the City of Vancouver. The new Housing Supply Act responds to the urgent housing affordability crisis across the province, requiring selected cities to speed up their development processes. More housing is coming. We must build it in a way that boosts people’s health and wellbeing—rather than hinders it. 

Density can enable happier, healthier urban design, if we do it right.

The way we design homes—and where we build them—can make the difference between a happy, thriving community, and an isolated one. 

When people oppose the construction of new, denser housing, they sometimes suggest that apartment buildings are bad for our health. But our research and experience show that it is not density, in and of itself, that harms or boosts our wellbeing. Rather, it is what density enables—and how we design it—that can have a remarkable impact on our lives. 

The good news is that we have a wealth of evidence to guide this growth in a healthy, sustainable way. Here are three key learnings.

1. To unlock the benefits of density, build complete neighbourhoods.

The greatest benefit of dense housing is that it allows more people to live in the areas closest to transit, shops, jobs, and services. But the existence of density alone does not mean these benefits automatically materialize. If we only build apartments in car-dependent areas, we will force people to endure more traffic and longer commutes. Any retail that does exist will favour big-box stores, rather than local business owners. Without planning human-scaled streets, we will worsen social isolation in our communities, rather than solve it. 

Instead, the magic happens when we combine density with complete communities. Study after study shows that people are happier when they can meet their daily needs close to home, without having to rely on a car. Density is crucial because it enables these very benefits: Neighbourhoods need a significant concentration of people living in an area in order to support a mix of local shops and services, and to justify investments in transit, public spaces, parks, community hubs, and more. In turn, these places encourage people to spend time on the street and walk to work, school, meet friends, run errands, and more. Over time, residents in walkable neighbourhoods benefit from greater physical health, mental wellbeing, employment rates, social connection with neighbours, and community resilience.

Density creates the foundation for growth that boosts health, happiness, and social connection—walkable, complete communities ensure it.

2. Density should expand housing choices, not limit them.

People deserve choices about where and how they live. Some people like quiet, family-oriented neighbourhoods with lower-rise buildings and more green space, while others prefer vibrant town centres with taller buildings and many destinations within a five-minute walk. The city’s responsibility is to ensure that people have choices, by allowing for diverse types of attainable, affordable housing and compact communities that meet local needs. 

The easiest way to build happier homes and communities is to integrate new housing, shops, and services within the neighbourhoods where people already live, work, and play. When people live far from jobs and services, they are more likely to drive, leading to more cars on the road, worse traffic, more pollution—and decreased wellbeing. When density is only allowed on arterial roads, it increases people’s risk of developing dementia and other diseases. And as we have previously written, car-dependent areas are most harmful for lower-income residents, who are less likely to find work or escape poverty if there are few jobs or places to open a business near their home.

The first step is legalizing missing middle housing and mixed uses in all neighbourhoods, including things like small units at ground level for local cafés, shops, and food stores. New development must include affordable and secure housing choices for everyone—places where people can live for the long term, without fear of evictions or unmanageable rent increases. By building more diverse types of housing, cities ensure that people who need something in between a single-family home and a condo tower have a place to live, and can afford to remain in the neighbourhoods they call home

3. Housing design matters.

People can live healthy, happy, socially connected lives in all types of housing—market or non-market, multi-unit or single-family—as long as it is designed to meet their needs. As more cities in B.C. seek to legalize the missing middle, they can consider policy, design, and programming solutions to help unleash the social superpowers of multi-unit housing. Importantly, cities should encourage and offer diverse housing and ownership models that meet people’s unique needs, including housing for seniors and older adults, culturally distinct communities, intergenerational residents, people with disabilities, people on low or fixed incomes, and more.

On the policy side, municipalities can incentivize developers to design healthier, more social multi-unit and mixed-use developments. The City of North Vancouver has led the way with its Active Design Guidelines, encouraging features such as social corridors and shared, outdoor play spaces. To build on this momentum, Happy Cities is working with Hey Neighbour Collective and municipalities across Metro Vancouver to create wellbeing guidelines for new multi-unit developments

In terms of design, multi-unit buildings can promote social connection both among the residents living within a building, and between a building’s residents and the wider neighbourhood. For example, on lower floors, large balconies that face onto neighbourhood streets can help promote social connection, while ground-level entrances increase the likelihood of people walking outside and knowing their neighbours. On upper floors, multi-unit buildings should prioritize access to shared amenities, which are particularly important for residents who may not have direct access to the street from their unit, and whose households include seniors or young children.

New homes—and more density—bring an opportunity to boost happiness, health, and inclusion in all neighbourhoods. In and of itself, more density won’t make or break our wellbeing. It’s how we build it that matters.

Related resources

Over the past decade, we have conducted wide-ranging research on the links between housing and neighbourhood design and wellbeing, beginning with our Happy Homes toolkit. Here are some resources on fostering wellbeing and community in multi-unit housing:

Have questions? Email us to learn more: info@happycities.com

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