Having doubts about density

 [Published by Centre for London, 29 June 2020]

I must admit, I have been having doubts about density in recent weeks. Such is the strength of belief in the high-density compact city model of urban living, that its denial feels like a crisis of faith. But coronavirus – and more importantly the changes to our lives that coronavirus has accelerated – are making me think again.

The argument for density is powerfully made, from a social, environmental and economic perspective. The sprawling suburbs that rising car use enabled in the mid 20th century were hugely damaging in terms of air quality, carbon emissions and habitat destruction, their gridlocked freeways a reminder that the lure of the open road quickly evaporates when millions of people want to travel to the same destination at the same time, in the least efficient way possible.

Suburban sprawl also disrupted social bonds, as documented by scholars like Michael Young in East London. People retreated from a sense of community to lifestyles that prioritised the individual or the nuclear family, with ever weaker social ties (the ’bowling alone’ phenomenon). Sprawl became a self-fulfilling prophecy: without density of population, there was not the critical mass to sustain neighbourhood shops, cafes, public services and transport systems. These things all became the object of car journeys, and parking assumed priority over proximity in a thousand out-of-town retail and leisure centres.

These ruinous impacts of sprawl were well documented in the paradigm-shifting work of the Urban Task Force in the UK, and in the rise of New Urbanism across the world. Gradually residents started returning to city centres (big businesses had never really moved out, following their own logic of agglomeration), drawn by the lure of easier commutes, improving public services, and the resurgent hum of metropolitan life. In central London, the population grew by more than 25 per cent in the seven years to 2018. And across central and inner London, towering residential blocks have sprung up, often lumpily incongruous with their more modestly sized neighbours.

But you have to ask, who is going to want to live in these towers now? As London recovers, some of the benefits of centrality will be reinforced; the ability to walk or cycle to work, for example, will enable urbanites to bypass constrained public transport. But trading space for proximity will seem less of a good deal than it was. Restaurants and bars will struggle, and some may never reopen; online shopping could boom at the expense of already struggling city centre shops; and workplaces may become places that are used intermittently, rather than for the standard nine-to-five (or five-to-nine, depending on your business) daily grind.

At the same time, connectivity is being transformed. As the electricity supply becomes less and less dependent on carbon fuels, electric vehicles and more environmentally-friendly hybrids such as electric bikes will allow movement without wrecking the planet, and online technologies from Zoom to Spotify will shift the focus from moving people and products through physical space to moving bits of data through networks. We have not yet experienced the death of distance that was much vaunted at the dawn of the internet age, but we may now be seeing the decarbonisation of distance.

So coming out the crisis, citizens may see a weaker case for high-density urban living, and fewer downsides to the alternatives. This is not to advocate a return to sprawl, or even to argue that it is an inevitable outcome, but for more dispersed urban density. People value the buzz of urban life, but perhaps they would rather enjoy it from a house with a small garden, rather than from a meanly proportioned flat with a Lilliputian balcony. Perhaps suburbs could provide the “best of the city and the best of the countryside” once promised by the garden city movement.

And London looks well placed to prosper in this new age of sustainable suburban living, as a city in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ of urban density. The city is sometimes described as ‘low density’, and it is when compared to Barcelona or Manhattan. But London is actually just as dense as Paris, and significantly denser than New York (wider urban area), even though its peak density is lower than both (see Table 1). That is to say, it may not be as dense in the centre as those cities, but it doesn’t sprawl so much on the edge either.

Table 1: Density of major cities compared to London (Source: 2015 figures)

New York London Paris Barcelona
Overall density (000s pop/sq km) 3.4 5.2 5.2 6.4
Peak (000s pop/sq km) 56.3 25.5 45.2 26.8

London’s miles of terraced Victorian houses actually offer pretty high densities, as well as private outdoor space for residents and the potential to support schools and other services within a fifteen-minute walk (particularly if the daytime population grows with more home working).

So London and other big cities may face a choice, and sooner than they think. Some affluent residents may start to turn their back on hyper dense city centre locations (maybe enabling a wider variety of residents to move in, including more young people). The density doubters will then have a choice; whether to move right out of the city, or whether to put down their roots within a few miles.

Many of London’s suburbs have seen a gradual decline in recent years, as employment, services and richer residents have been drawn to the city centre, but this could be an opportunity for reinvention. With investment and the right planning policies, they could return to favour, offering enough density to thrive, but enough space to breathe.

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