With various degrees of success, architecture creates a framework for community, for environmental responsibility, and for health. However, reaching these goals ultimately requires people—warm bodies—and empowering normal people to live out their daily lives in a reasonable way. A minimum population, or critical mass, is needed to support the businesses and civic uses within a neighborhood or town. Conversely, sufficient businesses and activities are necessary to allow a reasonable proportion of individuals to live without daily reliance on the automobile.
This paper suggests a method for determining an appropriate population numbers and densities for neighborhood/place development. It uses the viability of transportation modes to suggest minimum population and density, and uses amenity/services levels to suggest maximum density. The purpose is to suggest a methodology, but not to determine final numbers; all calculations and numerical assumptions are used primarily for illustrative purposes.
Setting the stage
Two ideas from a fellow CNU member inform this work. The first is that the main body of New Urbanist development has a “bloated T3,” that there is too much in New Urbanist projects of the sub-urban (T3) zone, however well configured it may be. The second is the concept of “Living Urbanism” presented at the fourth Next Generation of New Urbanists congress in 2006 (Preston). To the first point, I am interested in understanding to what degree our T3 is “bloated.” Regarding the second point, defining a “Living Urbanism” is essential to identifying functional standards describing the population needed to enable a high level of functionality and vitality.
The car is an active player in this analysis and some of my colleagues may find this methodology too beholden to drivers. However, I suggest this will push us in the right direction whereas a refusal to acknowledge the car in a methodical way risks leaving us righteous and stagnant. We must understand how to push the New Urbanist model to its breaking point, not that we would desire to abide there but so that we do not let ourselves be pushed over it. Compromises had to be made and will continue to be made in order to bring New Urbanism to a mass audience. However, the nature of those compromises should change and be re-evaluated as we progress. Where we can no longer afford to compromise is in creating beautiful, well-configured places that simply do not have the critical mass to come “alive.”