Densification of urban landscapes

Good urban densification requires good urban landscape design

Jonathan Solomon tells a CNN inverviewer that ‘Dense cities use less energy per person than more dispersed suburban equivalents. When you consider a city in relation to its larger region, the ecological footprint per person in a city may be significantly smaller than rural inhabitation’. Similarly, public transport systems use less land than private cars. So it is likely that if we must make our cities more sustainable then we must adopt densification policies. The main possibilities include: make more use of airspace (eg by building higher); make more use of underground space (eg for transport and parking); make more use of waterspace (eg with houseboats, tunnels etc); make better use of roofspace (eg for parks and gardens); make better use of ‘space between buildings’ (eg with new structures, cantilevers, balconies etc). In comparison with Tokyo, London is a very low density capital, and profligate with its use of transport space. The urban density in London (5,000/km2) is one eigth of the density of Manila.
OK, but all these measures require ingenuity and design imagination. They require studies from urban designers and landscape architects to discover how densification can take place in conjunction with improvements to the quality of life in cities. And we should remember the sceptics, like Jan Gehl, who argue that low density cities are more sustainable. My instinct is that there is no ‘one right answer’: cities need high density nodes with lower density peripheries.

Above image courtesy Jake Hirsch-Allen

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8 thoughts on “Densification of urban landscapes

  1. Kat

    It is an interesting debate, quite a hot one where I live at the moment. The state government wants to radically increase density (which in Australia means moving to the type of density many countries already have!) There is a lot of passionate debate, Australians tend to be found of their suburbs, though increasingly the urban sprawl is a result of people wanting to live in ridiculously large houses, which often have very little garden and are built in places with little public transport and longer distances to things like shops etc. Personally I would like a denser inner city than to see our countryside lost under ugly housing developments, but unfortunately we rarely get good density, instead we get ugly ugly apartment blocks and begin to lose our green space.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I don’t think it is a case of either high-density or low-density being ‘right’. It is partly a matter of personal preference and partly of stages of life. High-density centres are great for single people and carless people. Suburbs are great for car-owning families. So it should be easy to move between the two as one moves between stages of life – ie the transaction costs of moving house should be kept as low as possible in the interests of urban design.
    I very much agree about saving the countryside and I love the idea of creating a new Urban Country at roof top level.

  3. Christine

    The most interesting aspect of cities is that they are all unique and they all present unique opportunities to say something new about they way we live and can live in cities.

    In some ways the topography, built fabric, history, growth and flow of the city should suggest the best opportunities for density/greenspace mixing including dare I say it opportunities for acreage dwelling.
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    Saying this, in the acreage lifestyle, the idea that we share natural space with unique and important flora and fauna is critical and designs should acknowledge this by placing ecological considerations first in infrastructure decisionmaking and subdivision design.

    Ideally high penalties would attach to loss of biodiversity and functional habitat and high incentives would also attach to biodiversity conservation and gains of functional habitat.
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  4. Christine

    Yes there is a lot of new thinking at roof top level:

    The Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester’s fashion retail shop in Seoul is credited with “bringing some new dimensions to the Green concept.”
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    The Coolist has ’10 Stunning Sustainable Works of Architecture’.
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    And the Sunset substation project illustrates ways in which green roofs and solar roofs might be combined.
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  5. Tom Turner Post author

    New York is surely the prime example of a twentieth century skyscraper city. So much so, it should be slapped with a preservation order.
    My conviction is that when someone looks back from 2110 with the aim of identifying an equally archetypal twenty-first century city what they will be looking for is a highly vegetated city: green roofs, green walls, green spaces and green transport. From the standpoint of 2010, my best guess is that Singapore will become the Green City of its aspirations.
    England would be a great place for building a Green City – except for a complete lack of political will.

  6. Christine

    In my imagination the greening of the UK would look completely different to the greening of Singapore. Singapore is located in the tropics, and as a consequence has tropical vegetation and tropical downpours.

    However, it is good to see even if the air is still looking a little polluted they are taking the urban forest seriously.

    The city from the air [ ] and the road [ ] and city fringe
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