Why did we stop building at density? On planning, and why the CPRE is still wrong about brownfield

Surprisingly dense: Paris. Image: Getty.

Today saw another CPRE report trumpeting about space for a million homes on brownfield sites. Sadly that’s nowhere near enough to end the housing crisis – and most of those sites are not in places like London with the worst shortage.

But there is plenty of room to build more homes by making existing suburbs more walkable and attractive. We’re just really bad at doing it. In his book Shut Out, Kevin Erdmann fears we have built nearly all the attractive, dense places there will ever be.

“Density has become a sort of natural resource, like gold. We have a fairly fixed amount of ‘reserves’ of high-density urban centres, which can only be expanded with great effort.”

Why did building friendly, walkable, dense, mid-rise – like Barcelona, Paris, Vienna, Bloomsbury or South Kensington – become so much harder in the 20th century?

The current English planning system has never been good at graceful densification. There is no credible evidence it can do so at sufficient scale.

It was never designed to: when it was created in 1947, London’s population was shrinking. New Towns were all the rage. Planners aimed to decant people out to new garden cities in the countryside.

Sadly, moving jobs around was much harder than they thought. Network and ‘agglomeration’ effects matter. New Towns like Milton Keynes, well-linked to vibrant existing cities, did much better than those like Skelmersdale.

But as the number of homeowners increased, it became ever harder to build new towns anywhere within reach of the best job opportunities. We never built as many New Towns as intended. And then places like London started growing in population again, and we have never kept up with demand.

To create more homes within existing towns and cities, you need lots of flats, not houses, on an unprecedented scale.

England, for example, has never built more than 100,000 flats a year. We would need over three times that to meet demand with flats alone.

Source: Holmans; MHCLG Live Tables 209 and 254.

And even that flatters our record, because the 1960s and ‘70s involved demolishing swathes of existing homes for council estates. As you can see, since WW2 we have never grown the net housing stock at the percentage rate of the 1830s, let alone the far higher rate of the 1930s:

Source: Neal Hudson of Residential Analysts.

Over three-quarters of London is just low-density sprawl: endless two-floor semi-detached houses.

Source: Emu Analytics.

It's not just an English problem. Issi Romem of Trulia Research has shown how most US cities have given up on densifying their suburbs. These days they are mainly a sea of dark sprawling suburban blue, building little or no housing, like the San Francisco Bay Area.

Source: Issi Romem; BuildZoom.

There are a few exceptions: places like Miami or Dallas which, like Tokyo, have a majority of renters, who tend to be less NIMBYish; or places with no zoning, like Houston. See how much more orange Houston has today, where people are still building apartments in the suburbs?


Source: Issi Romem; BuildZoom.

Erdmann shows that. in the 1970s, as a share of GDP, the US invested three times more in building apartments than it does today. The US now spends four times more on home improvements than on building apartments, and even more on building houses:

Source: Kevin Erdmann, Shut Out, Fig. 7-9; BEA Table 5.4.5.

And those houses are mainly built in car-dependent sprawl, far from the best job opportunities.

So the problem is not just that we don’t build enough new flats in places awash with jobs, like London, Oxford, or San Francisco. We don’t build enough flats anywhere.

Most places in the US and England can only manage lots of flats with high-rise towers – the spots of bright red on Romem’s maps. That works for some, but less well for those on low incomes, and it inevitably causes a backlash: so much so that places like San Francisco, New York and London have failed to build enough housing for decades.

If we want to stop the housing crisis from worsening forever, we have two options: improve the planning system to build more flats, or reform the green belt to build more houses. No wonder brilliant academics like Paul Cheshire and Christian Hilber have been calling for green belt reform for so long.

You’d think CPRE would be fighting to upgrade the planning system so that lots more beautiful mansion blocks are built near stations in existing cities, reducing the pressure on the countryside. Sadly not. We build fewer than half the flats today that we did in the 1960s. A cynic might note that having a little green belt under threat is quite good for CPRE recruitment – but I like to think they’ve just been indecisive.

We can build attractive, dense places like Covent Garden again. The only question is how to solve the politics and change the system to do that today. The huge rise in the percentage of homeowners over the 20th century made it much harder.

Realistically, to build hundreds of thousands of beautiful new flats a year, making existing places better and more walkable by adding more homes, we need to be more creative.

That’s why our YIMBY campaigns are pushing for residents of a single street to be allowed to vote to choose a design code to allow more housing on their street. We think that’s one of the only ways to sustainably make existing places better and, ultimately, end the housing crisis.

John Myers is co-founder of YIMBY Alliance and London YIMBY, which campaigns to end the housing crisis with the support of local people.


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.