Urban density matters – but what does it actually mean?

Shove up: London's Oxford Street, looking crowded. Image: Getty.

In debates about urban density we often find comments about buildings being too tall or not tall enough, about too many people in a neighbourhood or too few, about streets and buildings being overcrowded or empty.

We are told that Melbourne is building at four times the density of Hong Kong, or that density is good and will make us happy.

But as these debates over density in cities continue, what is most often missing is any clear understanding of what people mean when they use the word “density”.

Is it the volume or height of buildings? Or is it the numbers of people? One person’s high density may be another’s sprawl; the same tall building may be experienced as oppressive or exhilarating; a “good crowd” for one can be “overcrowded” for another. One is reminded of Humpty Dumpty’s logic in Through the Looking Glass:

When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.

What such debate most needs is greater density literacy.

Density is a concept borrowed from physics where the meaning is clear – mass divided by volume. Yet when transferred to the city, nothing is so simple.

Are we talking about buildings or people?

First, we need to clarify whether we are talking about concentrations of people or of buildings. If we take population densities first, these are generally measured as residents per hectare based on census data.

But we also need to distinguish between “internal” and “external” densities – the numbers of people in a room or apartment versus those in an urban precinct. If you look at new high-rise housing in the evening, you can find many apartments unoccupied. At the other extreme, internal crowding largely defines a slum. Building density does not mean population density.

Building density does not necessarily mean population density, an example being low-occupancy housing in Melbourne Docklands. Image: Kim Dovey/author provided.

Population densities cannot be based on residents alone, since the numbers of people in a given neighbourhood at a given time include those who work there or are visiting. In a mixed-use neighbourhood, residents may be a small proportion of the population density.

There are also population density rhythms, as people move from place to place throughout the day and week. The same urban precinct can be densely populated during work hours and empty on weekends. Population density is not only the number of residents but fluctuates over time and with functional mix.

And how do you measure building density?

When we shift attention to building densities, we soon encounter some unavoidable jargon. The most common measure of building density is the “floor area ratio” (known variously as FAR, FSI, FSR and plot ratio) – the ratio of floor area to land area. This is the most widely used measure for limiting the bulk of development on any given plot.

However, it does not control the building height, “footprint” (the area occupied by the building) or “coverage” (the proportion of land covered by buildings). Thus it is quite possible to build high-rise low-density (with very low coverage or small footprints) or low-rise high-density (with high coverage or large footprints).

Most high-rise public housing from the 1960s and 70s is roughly the same FAR as the low-rise housing that was demolished to build it.

Building height is not a measure of density, although sometimes the two align. Confusions here abound; press reports (such as here and here) regularly equate FAR with height control.

Areas of different heights but similar building density in Fitzroy, Melbourne. Image: Kim Dovey/Google Earth.

Another common measure of density is dwellings per hectare. This is often used as a means of assessing population and building densities at the same time. But it does neither, unless we know the size of dwellings and of households. Thus dwellings per hectare is a very blunt measure of density, although a useful proxy for comparing housing projects.

Then there is the distinction between gross and net densities. Urban planning controls are focused on the net density on a particular site – yet such measures are of little use in understanding how cities work, because they do not include the public space of streets and parks.

The gross density is always lower than net density and it is the one that matters in debates over urban density. While we might be packed in on a particular site, the street network of a car-based city tends to keep us apart. Net density is not an effective measure of urban density.

As we measure densities of people or buildings at larger scales, we also incorporate water bodies, freeways and unbuildable sites, so the average density diminishes. Where one draws the boundary is a crucial decision in measuring urban density, or in getting the answer one wants.

Even urbanists such as Paul Mees can be guilty of this when using broad metropolitan density measures to advocate for public transport at suburban densities. Elizabeth Farrelly, a vocal proponent of higher density, compares it to the thread-count of luxury sheets (her minimum is 1,000), yet her only measure for urban density is “dwellings per hectare” – whatever the scale, net or gross.

Here we encounter the politics of density literacy and return to the logic of Humpty Dumpty:

The question is which is to be master – that’s all.

There is no single scale at which to measure urban density, but the larger the scale, the lower the density. The best approach is to understand density as multi-scalar: for any location there is an internal density, a net density, a walkable density and a metropolitan density.

High density is no guarantee of urban buzz

Finally, there is the question of streetlife density – of people in public space, of crowds and crowding. Here the complexities multiply. While we can measure the outcomes in pedestrians per minute or per square metre, we are far from understanding the ways in which streetlife is geared to building and population densities.

These connections depend at least on numbers of jobs and visitors, functional mix, car dependency, access networks and walkability. Yet this is where density delivers its greatest benefits in social and economic encounters – what we often call the urban “buzz” or “intensity” – along with disbenefits such as congestion.

Density without intensity in the car-dependent city – in this case, Tampa, Florida. Image: Author provided.

In Australian cities we have become quite good at generating high density without intensity. Think of car-dominated high-rise districts where few people use the street. Yet we also have good inner-city examples of intensity without high density.

For many people, density has become a negative word. Those who want more of it often use other words and phrases: the “compact city”, “urban intensification”, “transit-oriented development” and the “30-minute city”.

This can be useful language but the question of what it means remains. The challenge is to raise the standard of urban density literacy – not to make density mean one thing but, as Alice might put it, to understand the ways it is made to mean so many different things.The Conversation

Kim Dovey is professor of architecture and urban design, and Elek Pafka a research fellow, at the University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.