Why density is not a dirty word in city development

Growing populations, rapid urbanization and limited available land in the world’s big cities invariably means packing more people into what is already a tight space.

July 06, 2015

For some, this process of densification brings back bad memories of poorly constructed public housing in the 1960s and 1970s, of new business districts lacking in infrastructure and amenities, and of grey suburban shopping centers. Throw in fears of over-crowding, high crime rates and a loss of privacy and it’s no wonder density has so many negative connotations in some circles.

That, however, is ‘bad density’ at work, says a report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) called Density: Drivers, Dividends and Debates. Given that the populations of the world’s cities will only keep rising, well planned and properly managed densification is something which can provide a workable way of dealing with an increasingly pressing challenge.

“In most cases, density is the best way to accommodate economic change and population growth, providing the optimal returns for society and the environment while also creating value that can be captured and shared, and making our cities more flexible,” says ULI Europe CEO Lisette van Doorn. “But the world does not yet know how important densification is or how it can best be achieved.”

What does good density look like?

Dense developments in cities don’t necessarily mean high rise buildings or a loss of individuality. Well-designed developments include a mixed use of land that provides people with liveable and spacious areas in which to work, relax and enjoy a high quality of life. Good urban planning means that amenities and reliable transport are within easy walking distance along with easy access to education, healthcare and culture.

Densification can also be good for the environment by promoting the use of public transport, providing opportunities for shared energy technology and using existing infrastructure while also offering an alternative to greenfield development.

Indeed in cities, high density areas can be created on brownfield sites and transport interchanges, and by converting shops/offices. However, established residential areas could also face big changes in coming years – and these can bring disadvantages such as congestion, overcrowding and a loss of open space. For developers it can mean higher construction costs and more complex planning processes as local governments tend to prioritize short-term planning over the need to accommodate growing urban populations in the future.

Some cities have nevertheless already successfully adopted densification as a strategy in their ongoing development. In Toronto, the Downtown and Central waterfront areas account for 25 percent of its land but 40 percent of new developments, including many high rise buildings. When Seoul was experiencing rapid population growth in the 1980s its urban planners focused on developing high density suburban districts around its high volume metro stations.

Changing mindsets towards density

“Good density will mark out the next generation of winning cities,” says Rosemary Feenan, Director of Global Research for JLL and Chair of the ULI Europe Policy and Practice Committee. “Norms and ingrained behaviors are slowly changing, moving away from car-centric sprawling planning towards more environmentally-focused, high-density developments.”

One of the biggest challenges facing densification is to change urban behavior, especially in the conversion of ‘automobile cities’. Such cities rely on private transportation, and this can lead to urban sprawl. However, it can be done: Perth has transformed itself from an ‘automobile city’ to a city with numerous centers of high density living, supported by light rail.

“The world faces a stark choice when it comes to the development of cities. Density makes economic, social and environmental sense, and will provide a competitive advantage for people and firms in the future,” says Feenan. “However, while densification may be an obvious answer, how to deliver successful densification is not so obvious and is one of the most important topics of this urban decade.”

Changing current mindsets and investing in skills for better urban planning and advocacy to help take the density debate forwards are therefore key. Suggestions include more evaluation of city densities across the world, training for urban planners so they become bolder in creating developments for high density living and the potential development of a global density benchmark. City leaders also need support to learn how to promote density as a means to achieve public goals in the longer-term,

Perhaps the hardest challenge though is shifting negative public attitudes and showing there’s more to modern densification than the dreary concrete jungles of yesteryear.