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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The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.