In March I spent a few days in New York City. I had an amazing time visiting friends and taking long walks. I left feeling great, but when I had been back in Minneapolis for a day or two it felt as if I had left something behind, unease filled me. One morning I took the light rail to school from downtown and as the train stopped I could see down an empty street. It was 9 am on a Tuesday, the sun was out, the trees were full of baby leaves but the streets of downtown Minneapolis looked like a closed down movie set. I missed the density of New York, the people watching, the excitement of a new street or train and the never ending feast for the eyes that I often crave.
In planning, density is used to refer to the number of people who inhabit a certain urban area. Recently, density has become more of an important concept in designing cities and even suburbs due to the benefits urban density provides like increased walkability which leads to better overall health, increased economic development due to more people on the streets interacting with businesses and reduction in demand for fossil fuels.
Since the 2010 Census we have found that the urban population in the United States has risen with 80.5% of Americans living in urbanized areas. But even proponents of density acknowledge that there is a delicate balance between social streets and blocks of eclipsing skyscrapers. In an interview with Better Cities & Towns, Jan Gehl says, “people on the top floors — of apartments as well as workplaces — venture into the city less often than those who live and work in the lower four to five floors.” The author then adds that, “The atmosphere of the sidewalks is disproportionately the result of people in ground-floor units. If a design gives ground-floor residents comfortable semiprivate space in front of their units, the area will likely end up feeling well-populated. It will humanize the environment and put more “eyes on the street.”.
Designing a dense yet friendly space that will be alluring to current residents as well as future ones must be done carefully. Kaid Benfield of the NRDC wrote in 2009 about The Right Kind of Density as being, “a built landscape that respects and improves upon its neighborhood instead of overpowering it”.
I think part of the excitement and romance of an urban area like New York is the dynamic and electric nature of density. Diverse people exploring and merging with compact neighborhoods and historic buildings is exciting and yes, even romantic. On the other hand it can sometimes feel claustrophobic like a school of fish fighting through a maze. Lines can go on forever and unexpected train delays can throw off your entire day.
In a city with less density it’s nice to take a walk and be alone, to get where you need to go with less planning and effort or to enjoy a more quiet existence.
There are positive and negative elements about living in a more or less dense city so ultimately it all comes down to personal preference. However, I see increasing density in the future of Minneapolis with the addition of more comprehensive public transportation that will better connect metro-area cities.
I miss New York very much; my friends, people I met and the romance of density. There is something innately collaborative about New York that I am drawn to and I will hopefully return soon.
Here are a few photos I took on my trip!