What Is Gentle Density and Why Do We Need It?

Our cities are growing from the inside out — and it’s a good thing.

Soft to the ears, and mildly euphemistic, “Gentle Density” means more to the City of Calgary than its tender name suggests. Between 2006 and 2041, our city will have seen the arrival of nearly 600,000 new residents, all of whom will want to have a place to live — and not just at the south end of Deerfoot, or up beyond Stoney Trail. In our municipal haven between Rockies and prairies, simply building out isn’t the answer. Enter the concept, and creative terminology of internationally acclaimed city planner Brent Toderian:

“Gentle density is attached, ground-oriented housing that's more dense than a detached house, but with a similar scale and character. Think duplexes, semi-detached homes, rowhouses, or even stacked townhouses.”

Unlike “medium,” or “high” density projects, gentle density is “gentle,” because of the comparatively minimal impact it has on an established community. The goal for Toderian, and all allies of gentle density, is to offer a solution that satisfies population growth while recognizing the criticism and often-outright refusal of homeowners to allow development or redevelopment in their communities. The “Not in My Backyard” sentiment aside, opposition is often motivated by concerns over perceived declining property values, crowding, or havoc on the traditional atmosphere typified by rows of exclusively single family homes. Ironically, gentle density may actually rescue and revitalize the qualities dissenting homeowners claim their opposition will preserve.

Communities, like the residents they cater to, experience natural and predictable life cycles. As a neighbourhood is born, residents, primarily made up of young families, arrive. Businesses, resources and city services (schools, transit etc.), fill in the gaps providing substance and convenience to the community streets. As children get older and eventually leave the community, neighbourhood services inevitably decline; schools close, businesses suffer and transit options reduce. At this stage, efforts to reboot density by adding dwellings that entice new young families to join the community are essential to breath new life into established streets.

But dwelling diversity and the creation of mixed-use communities brings with it more benefits than just the cyclical upkeep of aging neighbourhoods; a varied streetscape offers incredible economic opportunities for a multigenerational population to grow and thrive. Not only does development boost existing businesses, it attracts new ones, providing recent and existing residents with better quality shopping and entertainment, as well as new investment opportunities, local jobs, and weekend activities. With new dwellings also comes new and improved infrastructure and amenities, like traffic signals, vehicle and pedestrian pathways and power lines. And finally, despite the fears of many anxious homeowners, with thoughtful redevelopment, property values actually often increase. Take Altadore, for example, whose recent redevelopment lead to a 260% surge in the value of pre-existing properties. 

As redevelopment in the form of gentle density increases, some communities will see more construction than others; neighbourhoods like Glamorgan and Tuxedo Park have barely reached half of their density potential, while others like Hillhurst Sunnyside are in high demand for their inner-city status. But if you’re still hoping, quietly or loudly, that the location of our city’s next development surge won’t land in your own backyard, consider this: thoughtful density and urbanization leads to stronger economies, better individual health, less pollution, and stronger community ties. Let’s celebrate our growing city — gently — and enjoy the natural cultural richness that follows. 

June 9th, 2017
Updated: September 1st, 2017

Gentle density enhances established city neighbourhoods.