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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Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.