Understanding
Density

 
 
 

Density is Here to Stay

Sustained population growth over the next 15 years combined with provincial land use plans (e.g. Provincial Growth Plan, Oak Ridges Moraine Plan, Greenbelt Plan) means that 12 million people will move the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) and need to live and work in the same land area in the currently occupied by 9 million people. More people in the same space means we have to live at a greater density.

To accommodate this growth while making efficient use of existing infrastructure, preserving natural areas, protecting drinking water and farmland, the province uses policy tools like the Provincial Growth Plan to require municipalities to plan for more compact, higher density communities.

But, it's not just policy that drives the trend to compact, higher density communities. The building industry and the housing market in the GGH is also changing in response to rising land costs, more diverse family types and population growth. More townhouses, condo towers and mid-rise apartments are being built, with a focus on people, amenities and active transportation rather than the circulation and storage of cars.

The result is a visible change towards a denser built environment in the GGH. Visualizing Density provides a way of seeing that change and assessing if greater density is working to provide residents with great places to live. 

 
 

5 Key Points About Density

 
 

DENSITY IS A KEY METRIC USED BY THE PROVINCE TO MEASURE PROGRESS TOWARDS GOALS OF THE GROWTH PLAN.

The Growth Plan intends to manage growth and protect food supply and water by encouraging municipalities and regions in the GGH to make changes to the built environment in the GGH and promoting measures to hold the urban edge. To do this, the Growth Plan aims to:

  • Revitalize downtowns to become vibrant centres; (the 25 urban growth centres)
  • Create complete communities that offer more options for living, working, shopping, and playing;
  • Provide greater choice in housing types to meet the needs of people at all stages of life; (more multi-unit buildings)
  • Curb sprawl and protect farmland and green spaces; (hold the urban edge)
  • Reduce traffic gridlock by improving access to a greater range of transportation choices (encourage transit, cycling and walkability)

Density is one of the main metrics that the Province uses to measure progress towards these goals across the province.  

 
 

 
 

DENSITY TARGETS ARE A KEY PERFORMANCE MEASURE.

The ratio of residents and jobs to a land area is the way density is calculated in the Growth Plan. To measure how municipalities and regions are planning to accommodate a growing number of people in a finite amount of space, the province has created density targets of 50, 150, 200, and 400 residents and jobs per hectare to which municipalities and regions must comply in their Official Plans. 

 
 

 
 

DENSITY IS NOT A DESIGN RECIPE; HIGHER DENSITY DOESN'T HAVE TO MEAN HIGH-RISE.

Achieving a certain residential density will not guarantee a viable urban centre or sustain benefits such as viable public transport or walkability. Often people confuse density with building type. Higher density does not always equal higher buildings. A high-rise tower with large units set on a park-like site may be lower density than a variety of grade-related multi-unit buildings and detached houses on smaller lots. Perceptions about density are not highly related to any one building type but is affected by landscaping, aesthetics, noise, and building type - in a word design. Similarly, zoning by-laws that allow for a mix and variety of building types (rather than segregate) will likely achieve both density targets and create the diversity and walkability that supports inclusive, complete communities. 

 
 

 
 

MEASURING DENSITY IS DIFFERENT FROM PLANNING FOR DENSITY.

There is a difference between measuring density (residents and jobs / land area) and planning for density (a co-efficient of residents and/or jobs/unit or area). The density we are measuring in our case studies comprises a ratio of the actual population on the ground at the time of the census or employment study to the land area. Many municipalities when planning for density calculate density using persons per unit (PPU) measure for residential and persons per sq. ft. for commercial.  This underlines the fact that buildings can go through several evolutions of use and there is always a potential for changed population or employment counts (and therefore densities) due to vacancies or levels of economic activity. 

 
 

 
 

MANY FACTORS AFFECT DENSITY TARGET NUMBERS.

In our case studies, we measure density at the neighbourhood and block scales. Density varies greatly depending on the scale or base land area used in the density calculation. The parcel or site density is almost always higher than the neighbourhood density, because at a neighborhood scale more land not in development (e.g. parks, roads, etc.) is included in the base land area calculation. Land area excluded from density calculations are called “take outs”. We acknowledge that ideas about take outs vary between the province and municipalities and that they are important from a compliance point of view. 

 
 

Getting to Higher Density

 

DENSITY CAN EVOLVE OVER TIME.

Higher densities don’t have to mean overcrowding and congestion. Intensification can happen in a subtle, incremental way through buildings that “fit” into the existing community. Good design and appropriate zoning can introduce density that is not intrusive. The case studies help to show examples of good design in existing communities.


A VARIETY OF BUILDING TYPES IS A KEY TO GOOD DENSITY.

Well designed communities contain a mix of housing types that provide for the needs of residents at all stages of their lives. The way that these housing types are arrayed through a variety of street configurations, block sizes, lot sizes, site layouts and designs can produce different densities. Although density is a useful way to measure what is being achieved with new development, it isn’t necessarily the best or only way to make the decisions that lead to the kind of development anticipated with the province’s plans. The key to building complete communities may be to ensure that higher density can evolve by not reinforcing homogeneity but rather by allowing incremental intensification through infill and a variety of building types. 


DENSITY CAN HELP CREATE THE CRITICAL MASS OF PEOPLE NEEDED TO SUPPORT HEALTHY LIVING, AND THE ATTRIBUTES OF COMPLETE COMMUNITIES.

The more people live in a neighbourhood the more likely it is to have frequent service on higher order transit and quality retail. A variety of tools in the planning approval process allow community amenities like child care, library services, human services and parks to be paid for by higher density. More compact, higher density neighbourhoods are positively associated with walkability and more active lifestyles that reduce obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular illnesses.

 
 
 
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