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.


Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.

Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.

What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.