Designing for Density Doesn't Have to Be Ugly, or Scary

San Francisco-based architect David Baker finds beauty in buildings that house lots of people

Few architects take the challenge of density done right as seriously—and creatively—as David Baker, principal of David Baker + Partners Architects. Among the many tools in his impressive design arsenal is one you might not expect: an ability to humanize the data. He's designing not for stats and acronyms but for citizens.

Density per square mile is a pretty normal concept for people looking at macro-scale planning, and most architects tend to focus on "dwelling units per acre," or DUA. But this, says Baker, ignores how big those dwellings are and also ignores the effects of streets, parks and parking, commercial uses, and public uses like schools, libraries, and civic offices.

Dense urban areas don’t have to be all highrises. With a mix of housing types, Oakland, California's new Tassafaronga Village contains 33 dwellings per acre, making it five times as dense as the average American City.

 

The town square of Tassafaronga Village, situated on 7-1/2 acres. The LEED-certified project has a range of affordable housing, green space, and pocket parks. 

The San Francisco-based architect opts instead for "people per square mile,” a concept he was first was exposed to by a Canadian landscape architecture professor who presented various green districts in British Columbia. There, says Baker, “they seemed to have taken up the idea that to be a 'green district' you should have a goal of 100,000 people per square mile. It's an arbitrary goal, but quite achievable without resorting to mega buildings. I think it's a great metric to measure a design by—a quantitative measure.”


DBA's Blue Star Townhouses house 23,000 people per square mile. Townhouses are one of the lower density urban housing types.

Low-rises rises like 8th & Howard are four to six stories tall, with 155 dwellings per acre and 83,000 people per square mile. The ground level contains active uses like this organic grocery store and an early childhood education center. (Photo by Brian Rose.)

To convert units per acre to people per square mile, Baker assumes residential areas cover one third of the city. There are multiple reasons to view urbanism through this lens. For one, greenness is determined more by density than climate. Manhattan, for example, has 70,595 people per square mile yet has the lowest carbon footprint of the United States. Conversely, Oklahoma City has 872 people per square mile and each of those individuals produce double the carbon of a New Yorker. A look at the stats for a variety of cities begins to shed more light on how this measurement can help define density:

There are 17,000 people per sq mile in San Francisco; 1,783 in Atlanta; 8,205 in Los Angeles; 2,648 in Tucson, and 111,453 in Kowloon. As the number of people per square mile decreases, things like traffic, air pollution, and energy consumption increase. In the San Francisco Bay Area where Baker works, the densest counties use the least energy. People are more likely to ride bikes (like Baker) or use transit while VMT (vehicle miles traveled) is much greater outside of city.

Mid-rise buildings like DBA's 223-unit Curran House in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, house 119,000 people per square mile in a setting that includes such unexpected amenities as rooftop agricultural plots for residents. (Photo by Brian Rose).

The key to density is a mix of housing types rather than an entire city of high-rises like DBA's Taylor & Eddy project (160,000 people per square mile).

Though an unabashed lover of cities, Baker would never describe himself as “anti-suburb.” As he explains, “I think the most important thing is to get away from the idea that either suburban or urban life is 'better,' that there is a loser and a winner (except in carbon footprint, where suburbs really can't compete on a per-person basis). Sometimes the assumption is that density is inherently 'bad' [but] increasingly people are much more open to density, especially in places like San Francisco where there is such a renaissance of urban culture going on. We have the advantage here of being able to point to many built examples of high density urban projects, ours and others, that are wonderful communities.”

Baker describes the Waverly Residence he designed for a family in Palo Alto as "an urban insertion in the suburban grid."

“Obviously you can create density in various ways, and many strategies can work,” says Baker. “Paris has density without going vertical very much and sticks to a pretty consistent number of stories and height, while Manhattan mixes it up a lot, with huge high rises and tiny brownstones in close proximity. Both are pretty great places. I think the key is having a performance standard that can be reached in many ways.” And, as Baker’s proliferating projects demonstrate, the reality of density is a lot less scary than hypothetical stuff. 

All homes in the newly-designed Tassafaronga Village are certified LEED Platinum.

About the Author