Rethinking Our denseCity NLQ Article by Arney Fender Katsalidis | AFK Studios

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10 July 2015

Rethinking Our Dense(CITY)


When did “density” become such a dirty word?

Density needn't mean an endless parade of towers - Kensington and Chelsea's density levels are 30% higher than that of Mexico City

We increasingly see density referred to as the equivalent to Dante’s Inferno, lazily confused with overcrowding, 19th Century slums or 50’s housing estates, and all that goes with that part of our history. Density is a nightmare for politicians. How can you sell a concept that is either confused with a deep-seated fear of the past or seen as an argument to build higher to accommodate foreign buyers of our scarce number of houses?

Density is the cornerstone of our cities and is an essential ingredient to making our cities great. Indeed, there currently exists a significant need for us as a nation to densify our existing cities using infrastructure already in existence, all while uplifting residential amenity. Perhaps this is why seemingly all political parties, in the lead up to our recent general election, showed commitment to urban growth, and why our last government committed billions to our cities and their infrastructure.

It’s time we stopped fuelling the fire of fear and rethink density for the sake of our cities. Here’s why.

Cities are the ultimate in sustainable connected living. Their use of infrastructure is super-efficient; housing, transport, energy and labour are all economically and sustainably effective. Higher density of occupation results in lower usage of natural resources, conservation of land and meaningful social benefits such as shorter commuting times, vibrant community living, and effective public services. The connectivity of cities enables them to be incubators and transmitters of ideas, engines of growth, and agents of change.

Following the World War there was a mass exodus from our ravaged cities to the suburbs. The city was thought to be a life working in the ‘smoke’, contrasted by the leafy and bucolic images associated with living outside the green belt surrounded by nature. Since then the tide has turned; our cities are more popular and more liveable. However, the romanticism of suburban and village life remains ingrained in our British psyche and those reigniting the ‘Garden City’ movement have tapped into this vein of isolated thinking.

But ‘creating new garden cities’ is not much more than a spin doctor’s attempt to sugar-coat ‘urban sprawl’,

making it seem attractive as an answer to our housing shortage. However, density protects the green belts and the green belts makes both our cities and suburbs more valuable. Ensuring we avoid urban sprawl will ensure that the UK will continue to be attractive to many people both within the country and those originally from abroad. Our cities are beautiful and I believe that we must fight fiercely to protect those things that make them great.

By way of contrast, Mexico City, which has 9,800 people/km2, is considered to be one of the most cramped and unliveable metropolises in the world. However, with 13,087 people/km2, two of the most sought after boroughs in London, Kensington and Chelsea, have a density 30% higher than Mexico City. Increasing density doesn’t need to translate into unliveable or less desirable neighbourhoods or cities. Rather, connectivity and good design determine desirability, and Kensington and Chelsea residents are well serviced by schools, shops and services – all within a short walking distance of their homes.

Contrarily, some areas of Tower Hamlets have a similar density to Kensington and Chelsea but poor design, a lack of shared open spaces and minimal greenery have led to the antithesis of to the aforementioned west London boroughs. Housing estates that are disconnected to the larger neighbourhood grain are barriers that isolate residents, stymie cross neighbourhood movement and seed social deterioration. The resulting lack of clear identity, so important for residents, contributes to the impoverished nature of these parts of our city.

It is time that we re-frame the debate about our cities. Density doesn’t mean an endless parade of towers. A review of UK densities demonstrates that we can realise the same density with isolated towers so popular in the 1950’s as we can in a low rise sprawling suburb. Moreover, we can achieve the same density with a delightful mid-rise development that provides scale, enclosure and a sense of community to those living there.

We need to cherish and fight for the qualities that make our cities and rural areas great. There is absolutely no justification to sacrifice the Green belt to accommodate our growth. Rather, we must work to accelerate the release of urban land held by the public sector. Now that the election is out the way, we must urge our politicians – many of whom do understand the solution – to bite the bullet in an effort to overcome the sclerosis that holds back urban renewal. Density shouldn’t be a dirty word!

Earle Arney presented a paper on density to Minister for Cities, Greg Clark, and leading members of the property industry in January of 2015.

The article can be read at the latest issue twenty-three of the New London Quarterly