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Density in cities

Rising densities in all our cities will create new social and economic opportunities by 2040

Density in cities

The population of our big cities is projected to increase significantly by 2040. But physical growth is constrained by green belt, and as we write elsewhere these boundaries are unlikely to change significantly by 2040, given current political commitments. That implies densification.

230_Density in Cities_pullquote_270x110The Greater London Authority (GLA) forecasts that this level of population growth in London requires at least 66,000 new homes each year. But as it stands, in terms of land use for housing, London is not a dense city by world standards. For example, inner London has a density of only 108 people per hectare compared to 212 people in Paris and 163 people in Barcelona - cities which certainly don’t feel overcrowded.

However, there is scope for densification within city boundaries, a topic that the GLA has been taking seriously through a number of research projects. It runs as a core theme throughout the new London Plan. Within commercial property, cost drivers and employee demands are also encouraging occupiers to adopt flexible space layouts that reduce space requirements per worker.

Figure 1: Cities’ density comparison

230_Density in Cities_Figure 01_Graphic_746x746
Source: GLA Report 2016 ‘Lessons from higher density development’

UK cities are likely to become significantly more crowded by 2040. Any new development sites coming forward will need to optimise residential and commercial densities; and emerging planning policies on issues such as daylight and sunlight impacts might well need to be relaxed (a position set in the Government’s new National Planning Policy Framework). Communities will be resistant to change, but to accommodate the pace of population growth, there will need to be an acceptance of the need for increasing densities. As we write elsewhere, tall buildings will become more common outside of central London and in core cities across the country. However, there are a wide range of building typologies that deliver additional densities without the reliance on significant height.

There will also need to be an acceptance of new ways of living in 2040, and a need for innovative design and sustainable, high quality places in which we can live and work. Rather than being alarmed by the levels of intensification required in 2040, we should seize opportunities posed by these new ways of living. We will live in closer proximity to our neighbours and our workplaces will host more people in less space, so we can expect higher levels of social interaction. Greater urban populations can create the business case that justifies the investment in sustainable transport, our schools and public spaces. We will more commonly live in walking distance of shops, services and schools, reducing our reliance on the private car.

The trend to densification will force our architects, developers and planners to think in new ways, and to consider the best layouts and use of space within our buildings, for example, communal dining areas that can be booked out rather than having large living rooms, innovative approaches to storage and usable public realm, and play spaces that can relieve our need for private outdoor space. Case studies such King’s Cross perfectly demonstrate the benefits of this new way of living, and the blend of high residential densities and significant investment in a playful and engaging public realm. King’s Cross demonstrates what can be achieved in shifting perceptions of place and embracing urban development at scale.  

Research by the GLA identifies a number of significant benefits of pursuing densification that include increasing economic productivity, transport sustainability and encouraging innovative new housing initiatives. Provided greater residential density is supported by investment in infrastructure and high-quality placemaking with innovative design, life in cities in 2040 is an exciting prospect.

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