scorecardThe key to happiness might be living within walking distance of a coffee shop
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The key to happiness might be living within walking distance of a coffee shop

Eliza Relman   

The key to happiness might be living within walking distance of a coffee shop
PolicyPolicy3 min read
  • Opponents of new development often say they don't want denser neighborhoods.
  • But a certain amount of density is necessary to create more affordable and inclusive communities.

As cities and towns across North America suffer from a housing affordability crisis largely caused by a shortage of homes, urban planners and housing advocates are coming up against an aversion to density.

More people living closer together is necessary to create more affordable and inclusive neighborhoods, housing advocates say. But many opponents of new development say they worry about increased traffic, overloaded schools, and shadow-casting apartment buildings. Higher density, they argue, will alter the character of their neighborhoods and hurt their well-being.

"We clearly need to increase density, especially near transit, to provide enough homes for everybody, but there's this deep-seated, long-existing distrust of density," said Tristan Cleveland, an urban planner and researcher at the Canadian design firm Happy Cities.

In a recent study, Cleveland and his colleagues aimed to determine how density — and other aspects of the built environment, like housing type — impact individual happiness and well-being. The research, which involved surveying almost 1,900 people living in 15 municipalities in the Vancouver region of British Columbia, found no evidence that higher-density living is associated with decreased happiness, social connection, or well-being. Instead, it found that a certain amount of density is necessary, but not sufficient, to maximize residents' well-being.

Well-designed density — think pedestrian-friendly streets with easy access to transit and amenities like shops, restaurants, and parks — was positively correlated with well-being and happiness. But poorly designed density — like very small apartments, scarce green space, and wide roads — is correlated with decreased well-being.

"If you simply put a bunch of apartment towers together without providing things that density makes possible, such as local amenities, shops, transit, then you're actually not delivering the value of density for wellbeing," Cleveland said.

Studies have found that living in walkable neighborhoods, spending less time driving and commuting, and having access to third places like coffee shops and parks are associated with better well-being and social connectedness.

"When we have everything we need close to home, that ends up saving us a lot of time," Madeleine Hebert, a housing specialist at Happy Cities who co-authored the firm's report. "When we save time, we have more time to spend with our families, we have time to exercise, we have time to build social connections with our neighbors."

But for a neighborhood to support mass transit, and amenities like local shops and restaurants, it needs a certain amount of density.

Density is necessary, but not sufficient

People across North America aren't just worried about how expensive their neighborhoods are becoming. They're also looking for a sense of belonging. After affordability, respondents to the Happy Cities survey listed proximity to friends and family and "a neighborhood feel or sense of community" as the top elements missing from their neighborhoods.

More than 40% of respondents said they chose to live in their neighborhood because of its proximity to social and recreational amenities, like restaurants, shops, and parks. That's compared to just 28% who prioritized being close to work, and 19% who prioritized proximity to schools.

But it all comes at a cost. An analysis published last year found that homebuyers in the 35 biggest American metropolitan areas paid 34% more to live in walkable neighborhoods, while renters paid 41% more.

Notably, the study found no significant correlation between the type of housing someone lives in — whether it's an apartment or a detached single-family house — and their wellbeing.

"People are just as likely to be happy in single-family homes, as in townhomes, as in apartment towers," Cleveland said. "All levels of density are compatible — in different ways for different reasons — with happiness."

The only exceptions to this were basement apartments and very small units. Living in a basement unit was associated with fewer social connections and relationships with neighbors while living in an apartment smaller than 300 square feet was associated with worse general well-being, even when controlling for income, ownership status, the number of amenities, and other factors, the study found.

The researchers found that many large towers with smaller units were designed for lower-income residents and didn't have as much access to community spaces and amenities. These findings are important for city planners and builders to understand, so they can incorporate design elements that promote well-being.

"If you're designing these small units, which we know are housing our most vulnerable residents, and there are no protections around making sure that they are well-connected to community amenities, they have social spaces in the building — if those things aren't accounted for, then we risk building these small units that further negatively impacts people's well-being," Hebert said.