How can compact cities keep house prices under control?

Southwark (left): surprisingly un-dense. Image: Getty.

Islington is the most densely populated are in the United Kingdom – yet wandering around the quiet streets of the north London borough, it is difficult to appreciate just how many people live there. Handsome terraces, elegant squares and a plethora of parks disguise the fact that there are nearly 14,000 people per km2.

By comparison, anyone passing through Southwark, on the other side of the Thames, is immediately aware of the crowds of people who live and work in the area. New glass towers loom over the major roads, while older council housing squat heavily on the back streets. Cars crawl through the famously congested roundabout and the air is heavy with pollution.

Yet Southwark has fewer than 10,000 residents per km2. This means it is significantly less dense than many of its more desirable northern neighbours: Kensington and Chelsea, Hackney, Camden, Tower Hamlets and, of course, Islington.

Measuring the benefits of urban density

Increasing the number of people living and working in an area can generate huge benefits for a city. Productivity rises as people spend less time and money travelling, and can share knowledge and ideas more freely. Businesses can reduce their production costs when they have access to a greater choice of specialised suppliers and workers. And it’s cheaper to provide services such as health care, waste collection and buses when more people can use them.

For the first time, researchers have estimated the monetary value of these benefits to urban residents. Their findings have just been published in the first working paper from the Coalition for Urban Transitions, a network of over twenty organisations committed to enhancing the economic, social and environmental performance of cities.

Drawing on more than 300 academic papers, Demystifying Compact Urban Growth: Evidence from 300 Studies Across the World demonstrates that increasing population density generates significant economic returns. The authors find that a 10 per cent increase in the number of people living and working in an area enhances productivity by approximately £54 per person per year. Better access to jobs is worth another £48, while improved access to services and amenities is valued at £38. Increased population density is also associated with better environmental outcomes, including preservation of green space and greater energy efficiency.

All other things being equal, this suggests that compact cities like Hong Kong, New York and Paris are likely to be richer and more sustainable than sprawling cities such as Houston or Melbourne.

Managing the risks of urban density

A more compact city is not a silver bullet: there are also risks associated with increasing population density. Careful urban planning is required to mitigate these risks, and deliver the potential economic and environmental benefits.

First, a 10 per cent increase in the number of people living and working in an area can lead to more congestion, with an estimated cost of £27 per person a year. Significant investment in public transport, cycling lanes and pedestrian walkways is essential to ensure that people can move around the city without cars.

Second, this increase in density increases housing costs by £186 per person per year. Such growth in house prices might benefit people who own their own homes or rent out property – but it will be a challenge for renters. As low-income households are more likely to rent, there is a risk that compact city policies will exacerbate inequality within cities.

Governments can avoid an increase in housing costs through policies to increase housing supply. A steady flow of new homes coming on to the market can have a downward effect on housing prices, which may outweigh the upward effect caused by increasing population density.


Lessons from London

In the 19th century, the city of London undertook a series of extraordinarily ambitious urban infrastructure projects that continue to shape the city. The world’s first underground railway was opened in 1863; today, the London Underground carries an average five million passengers per day.

In the 1860s, a vast network of sewers and drains were constructed to serve the three million people living in London. These pipes ended the waves of dysentery, typhoid and cholera that devastated the city, and continue to be used by over 8m Londoners. These far-sighted investments enabled people to live and work in close proximity to each other, helping to sustain London’s population and economic growth for over a century.

A walk through London today suggests that the city is now struggling to manage population density. Despite Crossrail, the proliferation of cycling lanes and iconic red buses on every street, many people continue to depend on cars. As a result, London has the worst air pollution in Western Europe. A normal day’s exposure is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes.

The problems extend from transport to housing. House prices in Islington have doubled in the last decade, a period when real wages have stagnated. The soaring property prices are the favourite topic of struggling renters or prospective buyers. The city needs to build over 50,000 homes a year to keep up with population growth, while redressing decades of neglect in the existing housing stock.  The failures of London’s housing policy were made all too clear with shocking fire that devastated Grenfell Tower and the lives of its residents.

Thousands of people move to London every year for the economic and social opportunities associated with this extraordinary city. Its dynamism is due in no small part to its high population density. However, the city’s strained transport system and spiralling house prices underscore the importance of strategic government intervention to manage the risks of crowding so many people into such a small area. Large-scale investment in public transport and housing are essential to ensure that compact cities are also liveable and affordable.

Sarah Colenbrander is a researcher with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and senior economist with the Coalition for Urban Transitions. The working paper, Demystifying Compact Urban Growth: Evidence from 300 Studies Across the World, was prepared for the Coalition for Urban Transitions by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.