Density as experienced in Paris

For a long time a “denser” model of living has been seen in Australia as somehow a lesser or second rate way of living, especially given our financial, emotional and political investment in the car-based suburban model. There is also the egalitarian thing: that it is unfair for someone’s piece of land to be rezoned to allow more development and consequent value than someone else’s. And then, too, there’s the innuendo of possible corruption when it happens. Indeed, the word itself – density – is almost blasphemous.

It all means that we have not spent enough time exploring and designing good alternatives to our low density urban pattern. And that, it is now all too apparent, is not just extravagant in its use of finite resources but not conducive to our physical, social and economic health and wellbeing. Our broad-acre mentality, that we have ample land to spare and can therefore spread our urban areas, is in the end ultimately lazy, the easy way out, unimaginative and erroneous. If you listen to the Heart Foundation and our state health departments, it is also making us fat and sick by its reliance on car-based ways of getting about.

Lifting the game to improve the quality of apartment design is quite recent; and looking at how we can agglomerate good individual buildings into stimulating precincts more recent still.

Too often we are left with spotty pockets of medium density with no corresponding enhancement of public transport or civic services, or ever-higher expensive “signature” buildings with scant regard for street life and the wider community.

And so it is good to see density finally coming out of the closet so that at long last we can generate some collective understanding, support, energy and investment in a density that delivers. Peter Newman for instance has detailed 10 myths about density. Density has also appeared centre-stage in a number of recent talks about the type of urban form conducive to ecological sustainability.

Deo Prasad, who leads the CRC for Low Carbon Living based at the University of NSW but with extensive links around the country, brings the issue to the fore as one of three major program areas tackled by the CRC, when he spoke as part of the 2012 Utzon Lecture series at the University of New South Wales.

In the context of the massive investment that our cities are likely to see over the next 50 years, and stating that what we build “is our greatest threat, or our greatest hope”, Prasad said the centre would move beyond looking simply at carbon-reducing technologies and building designs (his own initial starting point, and still in the first program area of Integrated Building Systems) to include specific programs on Low Carbon Precincts and Engaged Communities.

Prasad was enthusiastic about the potential of a “living laboratory” model for all the centre’s work – an interactive learning from successes and failures. The “fragmented built environment industry”, he says, only exacerbates the problem. He cites the silos of individual professional and trade responsibilities, which are then also separate to the underlying financial and management processes that deliver buildings, and to the whole-of-life operation of those buildings.

“Engaging and involving communities may be the biggest driver,” he says. So let’s hope too that the Engaged Communities program will move beyond the simple and all-too-common dissemination of information, “fill up the empty vessel” model of engagement and tackle the wider task of changing our behaviours and our attitudes. And also those myths we have built up around our low-density suburban ideal. Like that it is more equitable (a piece of land for everyone), more family-friendly (the only decent place to raise kids) and more ecological (detached houses allow us to grow trees and veges, and put up solar panels).

And so to a second talk – by Vishaan Chakrabarti, Professor at the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University who spoke at the 2014 Utzon Lecture series in March, again at the University of New South Wales.

Chakrabarti, listed in Metropolis Magazine in 2012 as one of the top 10 game changers, is an architect, urban planner, developer and reflective academic, with additional degrees in engineering and art history, and experience as a transport planner. It is an instructive mix – land use and transport, with a developer nous and an understanding of aesthetics – all of which leads to a rather more expansive use of the term real estate than what we are used to, as evidenced also by the juxtaposition of images in the title of his lecture and also a book: A Country of Cities – Hyperdensity and Civic Delight.

Critically, he defines hyperdensity, a word that would send most Australians into apoplexy, as “density sufficient to support subways”, or mass transit. Not density dictated by the maximisation of corporate financial return, not by architectural aggrandisement, not by the lazy picking-off of sites where former uses have become redundant, but density with a larger civic purpose – the direct servicing and enhancement of human needs and functions.

The fruits of density in this model are not just a reduction in ecological footprint, but also the economic growth and innovation and productivity that comes from proximity, and what he says are the “joyful and healthy” lifestyles that come from the pleasures of walkability and participation in the community offerings that a higher population can support – true triple bottom line outcomes.

The data is now in. Creativity, measured in numbers of patents lodged, increases as density increases; obesity levels increase as commuting distance increases; and in Sweden divorce rates have increased as commuting time increases. As Chakrabarti suggests, “As humans we yearn for something more.”

For more data on the impact of density on our health and wellbeing, also take a look at a talk given at the Customs House in Sydney in 2013 by Andrew Dannenberg, affiliate professor in the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and Urban Design and Planning departments at the University of Washington, Seattle: How the Design of Our Cities Can Support Human Health and Sustainability.

Echoing comment by Deo Prasad on the fundamental problem of fragmentation and silo thinking, Chakrabarti warns that “our divisions imperil our planet”. He cites the separate entities of architecture and engineering design, urban planning, legal regulation and governance, and real estate and development. He also adds that while we might build green buildings, and put up solar panels, and use efficient appliances, none of this alone is ultimately going to cut it.

Only mass transit will, he says. And for that we need a denser urban fabric, citing that in the USA only four per cent of the population live at a density that will support public transport. But to make density work we also need to put in the effort. He lists the need for “great design”, “responsible preservation” and “sound urban planning”.

Chakrabarti further stated that he was really talking about something more than the familiar transit-orientated development type of density, which he called “itsy-bitsy”. He advocates considerably higher densities within the city centre itself – and which are largely unfamiliar to us here.

But it would be wrong to conclude that this is the only appropriate scale. Rather, it has to be horses-for-courses. And here is where a talk at Sydney University earlier this year, and sponsored by The Cities Network, comes in.

Rudy Uytenhaak is an architect from The Netherlands. He takes it as a given that in addition to the sustainability imperative people do indeed prefer to live in cities, as evidenced by their explosive growth and by the current pattern of movement to the centres of cities from outer low-density areas.

And, rather than considering the densities that result as somehow closed-in, restrictive or oppressive, he instead sees “cities full of space”: intensive, sustainable land-uses that provide access to opportunity. It is another great way to re-envisage the apparent dilemma of density.

Uytenhaak too challenged a myth – contending that the freedom and accessibility supposedly facilitated by the automobile has now been roundly defeated for most trips by congestion and long travel times. He also cites an interesting piece of data – that the “action radius” of children, the distance within which we let our kids do their own thing, has steadily shrunk within the urban areas we now build.

Rather, to get practical, achievable proximity you need density so that you can walk or bike or public transport your trips. And with an intensification of building and housing density can also come an intensification of the quality of the urban experience itself if it is designed, planned and implemented properly.

Density can also mean proximity to ideas, prompting innovation and productivity. And so Uytenhaak’s contention of dense cities as full of space – space not as square metres, but space as “sensation, possibility, feelings”.

Importantly, when comparing Uytenhaak’s work with that of Chakrabarti (The Netherlands compared to Manhattan), the architectural density that Uytenhaak promotes is more varied – precincts of low-rise and high-rise buildings together.

In his projects, density is obtained by careful detailed and at times ingenious configurations of different sized residential units with indoor and outdoor spaces interlocking and overlapping with each other in an intensity of design work we seldom see here. And by also being content with smaller unit sizes in a trade-off for utilising the enhanced qualities of the public realm that accompany these projects.

Which brings us to the concluding talk – on some work being undertaken by Ji Yu of the City Futures Research Centre at the University of NSW and presented in February this year at one of the centre’s lunchtime discussions on current research.

Yu has been working on a computer-based model that tests at metropolitan scale the outcomes – including carbon footprint – of different distributions of projected population increases.

Current work has looked at the future possible shapes of Sydney if projected population is distributed at various different densities derived from other global cities.

But the scenarios being tested could just as easily be based on our existing urban patterns – the different suburb configurations we already know. We could see for instance what would happen to the future metropolitan footprint and our resulting living arrangements if our cities grew in the shape of a particular existing outer or middle or inner ring suburb. And because we can actually go to that suburb now and experience its features it would mean better-informed, more robust decisions about our future urban form and density.

We already have an extensive repertoire of transit-based suburbs, many of which generally include a mix of dwelling types, densities and tenures. Good examples of “joined-up planning” as Garry Bowditch, chief executive of the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong, put it in another recent talk at UNSW. “Densification Australian style”, he says, not London style or Hong Kong style (or wherever) – choosing from that existing repertoire the form that best suits our future needs. Now more than ever we need to revisit these, our own familiar, comfortable and effective models of denser urban living.

Greg Paine is a Sydney based environmental planner.