Better Numbers

2003

Better Numbers is a submission to the Boston Society of Architects’ “Density Competition,” which asked entrants to design a dense mixed-use development on an “underutilized” fifty acre site in a Boston suburb. Interboro’s approach was to take issue with the architecture and planning profession’s perception of density, where density is merely a measure of residential population (such as dwelling units per acre). While Interboro drew a master plan that followed the formula by placing a lot of housing into the site, it stressed that, when planning for density, spatial concepts should be supplemented with time-based ones such as instance, frequency and duration, as well as more normative ones such as diversity and interactivity.

With Christine Williams

 


 

PROJECT TEXT

 

Numbers aren’t enough.

The scientific definition of Density is Mass/Volume. In other words, how much stuff is in how much space. In planning, density is typically a measure of residential population, such as dwelling units per acre. While we have drawn a master plan for Westwood that follows that formula by placing a lot of housing into the site, we believe that kind of plan alone is not density, and would not on its own be successful. Density also must address the following three themes:

1. TIME: Typical measures of density invoke an imaginary, immobile population that dwells around the clock. A block on the Upper-East-Side, for example, might have a density of 120 dwelling units per acre, but when, if ever, will all dwelling units be occupied? At midday, dwelling units offer a fairly useless measure of density, as most homes are empty. “Dwelling unit per acre” is also misleading for what it doesn’t include: an enumeration of the temporary, migrant population that “takes over” when the dwellers aren’t dwelling: by midday our block is as full as ever, host to a population of shopkeepers, truckdrivers, postmen, street vendors, au pairs, shoppers, tourists, strollers, schoolchildren and diners. To plan for density, spatial concepts should be supplemented with time-based ones such as instance, frequency and duration.

2. DIVERSITY: A development that is dense in the traditional sense of the word is well and good, but if it is homogenous in race, class, land use and lifestyle cluster, it is a missed opportunity. We believe urban environments are best when they accommodate unpredictable encounters between people who may not have otherwise encountered each other. Designing for density must also include measures to advocate diversity

3. INTERACTIVITY: A traffic jam is dense according to the scientific definition (lots of stuff, little space) yet with no interaction among the elements, it is just about the worst kind of density anyone can imagine. Efforts to engender density should strategically provide spaces of encounter, where the diverse elements can commingle, or even hybridize.

Cities are cities because they are dense: profuse with people, goods, services, encounters, transactions, events. But also, cities are dense because they are cities. The critical mass exists because a place has something to offer. To attract the stuff that makes a place urban, that place must, of course, offer locational advantages, but it must also be interesting. And this, we believe, is all about how the elements of density combine.

The Westwood site today is beginning to offer many locational advantages: highways, schools, commuter rail, shops, services, proximity to the growing 128 corridor. But while changing dynamics are helping the site at the regional scale, the legacy of the past has left us with many constraints. What exists today is the vestiges of the site’s old logic. The retail is primarily of the sort that requires large amounts of space for infrequent transactions (new car, armoire, pool table). Much of the rest is left from when proximity to the rail and freeway was more valuable to industry than it was to commuters.

We look first to the logics already affecting the site and try to learn from them, then introduce new ones so it can serve a higher volume of people than today. To bring people, uses, and events – or rather, to help the market attract them – we must create places that are rich not only in numbers, but in the diversity of experiences they can offer, their potential for encouraging inter-action, and the creative ways in which they use time as a variable for maximizing the use of space.

Project Team: Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, Georgeen Theodore, Christine Williams

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