How do housing density and design influence our health and wellbeing?
The Metro Vancouver region is experiencing an urgent housing and affordability crisis. In November 2023, the Province of British Columbia announced several new pieces of legislation to help tackle this crisis: These include legalizing three to six units per lot, province-wide, and designating areas within 400 to 800 metres of rapid transit stations as “transit-oriented development” areas. In these zones, cities will be required to allow taller residential buildings and eliminate parking minimums.
Density can bring many benefits: a greater tax base for municipalities; more people living close to transit, shops, and services; and reduced emissions from sharing walls. But it is not enough to just build more housing. We can and must create homes and communities that connect people.
How we grow matters.
Housing is not the only crisis our communities are grappling with. Study after study has documented our loneliness and social isolation. And each year, our communities face an increasing number of extreme weather events. As our cities continue to grow, we need data to help municipalities, developers, architects, and residents understand how denser housing forms can support—rather than hinder—wellbeing.
To answer this question, we conducted a research study and survey of nearly 2,000 residents living in all types of housing across 15 different municipalities. We analyzed the results to identify how the density, size, and design of housing in the Lower Mainland impact individual and community wellbeing, to help inform policy and planning decisions around housing density and design.
This research was commissioned and funded by Vancouver Coastal Health.
Overall, we found no evidence that density—the number of people living in an area—corresponds with lower health, happiness, or social connection. In our survey, there were no significant differences in wellbeing between people living in single detached homes, duplexes, townhouses, laneway houses, and apartment buildings. However, basement suites and units smaller than 300 square feet were associated with lower health and happiness, even when controlling for income. Our results suggest that, to achieve positive outcomes, density needs to be combined with best-practice design. For example, we found that access to shared amenity spaces in apartment buildings is linked with stronger social ties among residents, and that access to park space is linked with greater neighbourhood trust. Amenity-rich, affordable, dense urban environments with rapid transit can support a high quality of life for residents in the Lower Mainland—particularly when designed intentionally to support wellbeing.
Read the full report to learn more, or keep scrolling for a list of our key findings:
Key findings around neighbourhood density and wellbeing: Density, in and of itself, is not linked to higher or lower wellbeing.
- High-density areas are not correlated with lower or higher wellbeing than low-density areas.
- Lower commute times are positively linked to mental health, happiness, and social wellbeing.
- The top aspects that influence people’s decisions to live in their neighbourhood are proximity to transit, affordability, nearby shops and restaurants, and outdoor spaces.
- The top aspects that people feel are missing from their neighbourhoods are affordability, proximity to family and friends, and a sense of community.
- People who have lived for longer in their home report greater social connections.
- People with a higher sense of belonging and trust in their neighbourhood were more likely to report higher social connections, health, and happiness.
- People living near to a greater amount of park space reported a greater sense of social trust.
Key findings around housing design and unit sizes: Multi-unit housing design and quality matter more than density for social connection and wellbeing. Very small unit sizes are linked with challenges for wellbeing.
- Denser housing forms (duplexes, townhouses, laneway houses and apartment buildings—regardless of height) are no worse for wellbeing than living in a single detached home. Differences in residents’ wellbeing are more likely to be explained by income and ownership status.
- However, basement suites are associated with fewer social connections for residents, even when controlling for income.
- Those with higher housing costs (i.e. renters or people with mortgages, compared to owners without mortgages) reported lower wellbeing and fewer social connections.
- Access to amenities in multi-unit housing is positively associated with having social connections with friends, family, and neighbours.
- Renters and some multi-unit housing residents are more likely to be dissatisfied with their housing quality and condition than homeowners.
- Unit sizes of under 300 square feet are linked with lower happiness, physical, and mental health—even when controlling for income and other factors. Residents in these units were also more likely to report lower household incomes, and more likely to report having a disability.