Learning from lockdown: Don’t blame density for problems caused by poverty, by Earle Arney

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  • 01 February 2021
    Skilled delivery is essential - we should celebrate it more, says Earle Arney, CEO
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  • 22 July 2020
    Learning from lockdown: Don’t blame density for problems caused by poverty, by Earle Arney
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    “Breathing new life into the old office” by Earle Arney
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  • 02 March 2020
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22 July 2020

Learning from lockdown: Don’t blame density for problems caused by poverty, by Earle Arney


Our CEO & Founder Earle Arney was recently invited to share his views on density and why it is much maligned and misunderstood - especially post-pandemic. Earle's article was published in leading architectural magazine Building Design and can be read in full here, or below:


Learning from lockdown: Don’t blame density for problems caused by poverty

Health and housing should not be the privilege of the wealthy. Earle Arney prescribes ’extreme measures for extreme circumstances’

The property industry is witnessing a disproportionate attack on the urban poor. It’s time that the inseparable qualities of health and housing are united and we mitigate the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups. What can we learn from COVID-19 and how do we separate fact from fiction in the centuries old debate between density and its impact on urban populations?

As shapers of cities, we must radically improve our care and consideration of the vulnerable but also, guard against Dickensian reactions to density – after all, density has been long blamed as the major cause of urban society’s ills. Early last century Modernism adopted a clear social purpose to fix the problems of urban pollution and overcrowding, memorably manifest by Le Corbusier who proposed ‘building-up’ with towers surrounded by green space. Earlier, Eeneezer Howard’s 1890s Garden City Movement advocated ‘building-out’ and harnessed the bucolic beauty and sanctuary of the suburbs to persuade a generation to escape the growing Victorian industrial cities to a better rural life. Today, the fear of proximity and concerns over urban-health, could easily continue the same circular narrative that density is inherently bad. It may also rekindle the idea of anti-urban utopias and the rebirth of urban sprawl.

But if density is the defining factor in whether cities are ‘healthy’ and resilient, then what about Singapore, Seoul and Shanghai? All are extremely high density, yet fared much better during the current pandemic than some of their less dense counterparts.

At a recent seminar I hosted, Dr Sameh Wahba, Global Director for the World Bank, debunked the often misunderstood relationship of COVID-19 to urban density. Wahba’s team investigated 284 Chinese cities and published research that suggests a mutually inclusive link between population density and disease is unfounded. He also used the data currently available for New York City to illustrate that in some urban areas, COVID-19 cases are disproportional to urban density. Indeed, Manhattan, the most populous borough of New York City, has fewer cases of COVID-19 compared to the less densely populated outer suburban boroughs of Queens and Staten Island.

The data evidences that higher-density cities are not necessarily more vulnerable - and lower-density cities less resilient - to the pandemic. Moreover, Dr Wahba wrote that “higher densities, in some cases, can even be a blessing rather than a curse in fighting epidemics. Due to economies of scale, cities often need to meet a certain threshold of population density to offer higher-grade facilities and services to their residents” to help protect against the transmission of disease.
So if density isn’t to blame, what makes one city more vulnerable than the next?

It is simple - poverty. Covid has had a disproportional effect on the urban poor who have suffered greatly during the pandemic. London, to its great shame, has shocking rates of urban poverty throughout its boroughs. According to London’s Poverty Profile, our capital’s poverty rates are higher than any other region of the UK. As Lord Kerslake has pointed out in BD, the higher death rates to COVID-19 are also in areas where the housing need is the most acute and overcrowding rife.
Kerslake is right of course, housing and health must go hand in hand. What is also key to understand, is poor quality housing and vulnerability to infectious diseases is not the same as density. After all, some of London’s most desirable boroughs have the lowest COVID-19 cases and are also the densest.

For a start, we must ensure that Affordable housing targets are not lowered and we just get on and deliver them - at a good level of density. Given the economic impact of Coronavirus, special development authorities should be established to deliver this much needed essential resource. Think of the Olympic Delivery Authority that effectively delivered mass housing within a compressed time period – something we have otherwise been incapable of as a nation since the post-war period. This extreme health and housing crisis requires extreme action. It’s time to accept that the system is not working. These new special development authorities must sit outside our broken planning and local political system and be empowered to deliver homes across GLA defined Brownfield Sites, Opportunity Areas and Housing Zones – all within a defined sun-set. Such a bold move would be highly effective in offsetting the impacts of coronavirus by speeding up housing delivery before more poor people unnecessarily die.

The quantum of houses is only the base of Maslow’s pyramid – we must also address the quality of homes. Residential space standards now need to be updated to ensure adequate provision for homeworking and associated qualitative measures such as acoustics. Our standards should enshrine the provision of flexible spaces that are truly suitable for working, while converting to a more homely space when required. Further, permitting the entirety of open space provisions to be provided in communal areas without any such provision being directly associated with apartments must be a thing of the past. As architects we know that such apartments can be achieved with minimal uplift in area and no increase in external wall.

Delivering good quality Affordable homes fit for their evolving purpose should be accompanied by an increased emphasis on access to green space. Existing green space including the Greenbelts, must be preserved and nurtured. A recent study for the GLA has found that Londoners avoid £950 million per year in costs to the NHS thanks to public green space; £580m from being in better physical health and £370m from better mental health. Delivering homes for the urban poor is paramount. As a UK national who has spent much of my life living outside our Kingdom, I find it extraordinary that our industry has yet to find its voice in demanding change and we persist with a quiet acceptance of our industries lack of progress in delivery housing for the urban poor. Housing matters.

We can get the development economics to balance by increasing density to offset the provision of Affordable homes. As the World Bank has proven, it’s the quality of homes that matter and in the UK, getting on and providing them is what we need to get sorted. The knowledge that density can be unshackled from disease, should spark not the death of our cities but their rebirth - with good housing for all.