Is increasing population density the solution to the land-squeeze in successful cities?

Manchester. Could get some more people in there. Image: Getty.

The Centre for Cities' recent City Space Race report highlights a dilemma that most growing cities are currently facing: they need to build more houses and offices, but regulations and local political pressures restrict them from expanding, particularly when it comes to green belt development.

In theory, there is a simple way for cities to have their cake and eat it too. Increasing density — allowing taller buildings on the same space — should enable cities to provide more property space without having to expand outwards.

This idea is often the source of heated debate in public discussions about tackling the housing crisis in our most economically vibrant cities. But is increasing density the right solution for cities with high demand for land – and how viable is it in practice?

High average, low extremes

The UK is already a dense country. It has one of the highest average built-up densities — the population density of inhabited areas — across European countries.

But average national density is a blunt measurement of population versus land in a country and offers little insight into the variations across and within cities. When we look closer at UK cities, it’s clear that few urban neighbourhoods have the level of density found in other European cities. The densest square kilometre in the country, with a population of 20,000, is in the London neighbourhood of Maida Vale — an affluent area which doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of an urban jungle.

In contrast, some urban areas on the continent exceed 50,000 inhabitants — for instance, the most populated square kilometre in Europe is in Barcelona with 53,000 inhabitants.

The chart below plots all square kilometre units that are populated with more than 10,000 inhabitants for a selection of countries. In the UK, 86 per cent of these areas have between 10,000 and 15,000 inhabitants, and the other 18 per cent have less than 20,000. By comparison, all other main European countries have areas exceeding 20,000 inhabitants, with Italy, France and Spain having a considerable share of very high-density neighbourhoods.

Source: Eurostat.

The benefits of population density

This means there is scope to increase density in UK cities, and in particular in residential neighbourhoods. This would have many benefits: not only would it allow cities to accommodate new residents without expanding, it would also improve cities’ transport accessibility and planning.

Let’s focus on this last point. Transport systems in denser cities are likely to be more efficient because they can reach a larger share of the population at lower costs. Consider Hong Kong, an extreme case of dense population settlement. Only 7 per cent of the working population commutes using their private car according to the Hong Kong statistics department.

In contrast, 33 per cent of Londoners travel to work by car (still a reasonable figure against international standards), while this group is bigger still in Liverpool (57 per cent of commuters), Manchester and Birmingham (64 per cent), as shown on our data tool.

High density in Hong Kong makes the transport network more efficient too: the metro network is short in length (210 km), and yet it serves 1.1m workers every day. In comparison, “only” 800,000 commuters use the London Underground, according to the 2011 census, despite the network being twice as long (402 km).

In other words, denser cities lead to better transport accessibility, and this, in turn, means better access to jobs, less traffic congestion and fewer carbon emissions. (As research by LSE cities shows, there is a clear negative correlation between urban population density and carbon emission per capita.)

The challenges of increasing density

As such, increasing population density clearly brings significant advantages. However, it is not easy to achieve, and there are two main reasons for this.

First, some local residents are concerned that densification will alter and threaten the nature and shape of their city, and this puts political pressure on councils not to act. That’s because densification is often amalgamated with high-rise buildings.

 But London does not have to become Hong Kong. If only 5 per cent of the capital’s built up area had the density of Maida Vale, it could host an additional 1.2m people, without the need to expand outwards.

Second, it is easy to forget the administrative and technical complexities of densification. In concrete terms — both literally and figuratively — densification means knocking down existing buildings to build new ones. This is time-consuming and it has a cost. Moreover, unless a city has in place an overarching plan to increase densification across its length and breadth, it will take decades for it to become more compact.


What should be done?

For growing cities to build more houses and commercial space, there are only two options: build up or build out.

Building up (densification) has many great benefits, but it is also difficult to deliver. To have a chance to happen, densification must be at the core of strategic planning policies and cities must have the necessary power, determination and leadership to bring it about. However, this is a long-term strategy, with benefits that will only be reaped in the long-term.

In the meantime, a number of cities have an urgent need to build more houses, and lack of action puts pressure on the existing stock, as highlighted in our report. Only building out (expanding) will enable them to respond to this need quickly enough. In most cases, this means that some green belt land must be released for development.

This is a difficult trade-off, but there is a middle ground between full densification and full expansion. For instance, cities could release plots of green belt land that are found within walking distance to an existing train station, and ensure that new developments have higher densities (in a Maida Vale rather than a Hong Kong style). This would allow cities to create a large number of homes on a small fraction of the land, limiting encroachment on the green belt and allowing easy transport access to the city.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.