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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Everybody hates the Midlands, and other lessons from YouGov’s latest spurious polling

Dorset, which people like, for some reason. Image: Getty.

Just because you’re paranoid, the old joke runs, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. By the same token: just because I’m an egomaniac, doesn’t mean that YouGov isn’t commissioning polls of upwards of 50,000 people aimed at me, personally.

Seriously, that particular pollster has form for this: almost exactly a year ago, it published the results of a poll about London’s tube network that I’m about 98 per cent certain* was inspired by an argument Stephen Bush and I had been having on Twitter, at least partly on the grounds that it was the sort of thing that muggins here would almost certainly write up. 

And, I did write it up – or, to put it another way, I fell for it. So when, 364 days later, the same pollster produces not one but two polls, ranking Britain’s cities and counties respectively, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that CityMetric and YouGuv are now locked in a co-dependent and potentially abusive relationship.

But never mind that now. What do the polls tell us?

Let’s start with the counties

Everybody loves the West Country

YouGov invited 42,000 people to tell it whether or not they liked England’s 47 ceremonial counties for some reason. The top five, which got good reviews from between 86 and 92 per cent of respondents, were, in order: Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Somerset. That’s England’s four most south westerly counties. And North Yorkshire.

So: almost everyone likes the South West, though whether this is because they associate it with summer holidays or cider or what, the data doesn’t say. Perhaps, given the inclusion of North Yorkshire, people just like countryside. That would seem to be supported by the fact that...


Nobody really likes the metropolitan counties

Greater London was stitched together in 1965. Nine years later, more new counties were created to cover the metropolitan areas of Manchester, Liverpool (Merseyside), Birmingham (the West Midlands), Newcastle (Tyne&Wear), Leeds (West Yorkshire and Sheffield (South Yorkshire). Actually, there were also new counties covering Teesside (Cleveland) and Bristol/Bath (Avon), too, but those have since been scrapped, so let’s ignore them.

Not all of those seven counties still exist in any meaningful governmental sense – but they’re still there for ’ceremonial purposes’, whatever that means. And we now know, thanks to this poll, that – to the first approximation – nobody much likes any of them. The only one to make it into the top half of the ranking is West Yorkshire, which comes 12th (75 per cent approval); South Yorkshire (66 per cent) is next, at 27th. Both of those, it may be significant, have the name of a historic county in their name.

The ones without an ancient identity to fall back on are all clustered near the bottom. Tyne & Wear is 30th out of 47 (64 per cent), Greater London 38th (58 per cent), Merseyside 41st (55 per cent), Greater Manchester 42nd (53 per cent)... Not even half of people like the West Midlands (49 per cent, placing it 44th out of 47). Although it seems to suffer also from the fact that...

Everybody hates the Midlands

Honestly, look at that map:

 

Click to expand.

The three bottom rated counties, are all Midlands ones: Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire – which, hilariously, with just 40 per cent approval, is a full seven points behind its nearest rival, the single biggest drop on the entire table.

What the hell did Bedfordshire ever do to you, England? Honestly, it makes Essex’s 50 per cent approval rate look pretty cheery.

While we’re talking about irrational differences:

There’s trouble brewing in Sussex

West Sussex ranks 21st, with a 71 per cent approval rating. But East Sussex is 29th, at just 65 per cent.

Honestly, what the fuck? Does the existence of Brighton piss people off that much?

Actually, we know it doesn’t because thanks to YouGov we have polling.

No, Brighton does not piss people off that much

Click to expand.

A respectable 18th out of 57, with a 74 per cent approval rating. I guess it could be dragged up by how much everyone loves Hove, but it doesn’t seem that likely.

London is surprisingly popular

Considering how much of the national debate on these things is dedicated to slagging off the capital – and who can blame people, really, given the state of British politics – I’m a bit surprised that London is not only in the top half but the top third. It ranks 22nd, with an approval rating of 73 per cent, higher than any other major city except Edinburgh.

But what people really want is somewhere pretty with a castle or cathedral

Honestly, look at the top 10:

City % who like the city Rank
York 92% 1
Bath 89% 2
Edinburgh 88% 3
Chester 83% 4
Durham 81% 5
Salisbury 80% 6
Truro 80% 7
Canterbury 79% 8
Wells 79% 9
Cambridge 78% 10

These people don’t want cities, they want Christmas cards.

No really, everyone hates the Midlands

Birmingham is the worst-rated big city, coming 47th with an approval rating of just 40 per cent. Leicester, Coventry and Wolverhampton fare even worse.

What did the Midlands ever do to you, Britain?

The least popular city is Bradford, which shows that people are awful

An approval rating of just 23 per cent. Given that Bradford is lovely, and has the best curries in Britain, I’m going to assume that

a) a lot of people haven’t been there, and

b) a lot of people have dodgy views on race relations.

Official city status is stupid

This isn’t something I learned from the polls exactly, but... Ripon? Ely? St David’s? Wells? These aren’t cities, they’re villages with ideas above their station.

By the same token, some places that very obviously should be cities are nowhere to be seen. Reading and Huddersfield are conspicuous by their absence. Middlesbrough and Teesside are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve ranted about this before – honestly, I don’t care if it’s how the queen likes it, it’s stupid. But what really bugs me is that YouGov haven’t even ranked all the official cities. Where’s Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, which attained the dignity of official city status in 2012? Or Perth, which managed at the same time? Or St Asaph, a Welsh village of 3,355 people? Did St Asaph mean nothing to you, YouGov?

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

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*A YouGov employee I met in a pub later confirmed this, and I make a point of always believing things that people tell me in pubs.