thoughts on our urban future

The case for density

In countries like the UK, where developable land is scarce, there has been over the last few years a drive for denser urban development. Denser in this case means more so than in the past, when the efficiency in the use of the land was practically left in the hands of market forces. Whilst nowadays policy may not be as clear cut as it had been recently, I believe there is now a general consensus in the construction industry that land should be used efficiently, and that high density does not necessarily mean bad quality.

I imagine this general acceptance of the need for higher densities (and I am talking especially about residential development) applies more or less elsewhere in Europe at least. Of course I am talking about those involved in making the decisions, such as developers, architects, urban designers, town planners, etc, and not about the general public. The average citizen, I suspect, would prefer living in a place where neighbours are kept at a certain distance. Even one of our own authors here has found a number of reasons why that is a good idea!

Having said that, there are lots of places where high densities are just natural, and perhaps precisely because of market forces, people choose to live in parts of the city where there are lots of people ‘living on top of each other’. In London, Tokyo or New York, for example, some of the most exclusive places to live are actually quite high density – often in the centre of town. The same thing happens in places like Seoul, Barcelona or Hong Kong.

There is a clear distinction, though, between heavily populated places of at least relative wealth like those mentioned above and high density areas inhabited by the poor. Many of India’s cities rank very high on the density scale, with areas of significantly high density also found in places like San Juan in the Philippines and La Paz in Bolivia, or Kinshasa in the African Congo. These are often places where high densities are coupled with lack of infrastructure (or crippling infrastructure as more and more people migrate where it was never planned they would), pollution and traffic congestion.

Yet even in those places there are reasons why people choose to live there. Many migrate from the countryside hoping to improve their lives, and they do at least to some degree, as often even those precarious conditions offer an improvement to the countryside they left behind. Cities act as ‘pathways out of poverty’, where there’s the possibility of employment and better access to facilities. It basically goes back to why cities are such a successful man-made creation in the first place.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture by Professor Edward Glaeser at the LSE where he presented his book “Triumph of the City: how our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier” – which I have not read yet but would describe as a study on urban economics (there’s a review here). He talked about the importance of urban life to business and innovation and suggested the most important investment in any city is human capital, obviously supported by the adequate physical environment and infrastructure. He also spoke about the ‘power of density’, which allows for the creation of a critical mass for production and distribution of knowledge, the machine to produce wealth.

It’s not surprising that at high densities urban life is more intense. There are more opportunities for social interaction and the place adapts to accommodate spaces for exchange or ideas and information but also for consumption and trade. If well designed and managed, dense urban areas can be great places to live. Moreover, building at higher densities makes a better use of all kinds of resources, minimises the need to travel and takes up less space, lessening the impact of development on the countryside. In dense cities in the developed world, the energy consumption per capita is lower than in rural areas as a result – as discussed in this post.

Market forces remain a major factor when assessing development potential in urban and suburban areas. Generally, people are prepared to spend more time commuting to be able to afford living in a place where buildings are further apart, which goes to demonstrate how much people appreciate space – and development responds to consumer demand. Yet I agree with Professor Glaeser on that the challenges presented by high density living are preferable to the consequences of urban sprawl. And I am not lying when I say I much prefer to live in a small place near the centre of town than in a large house in the suburbs.

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