Humanity is moving inextricably to cities. For many people, there is only one response: to make cities denser. Adding the threat of climate change just reinforces the argument: dense cities can support the kind of local services and transport infrastructure that gets people out of CO2 emitting cars. Fifty years on from the high-rise social housing experiments that failed so badly, the UN’s “principles for sustainable neighbourhood planning” favour high density. It’s official: density is good for us.
Developers and architects have embraced this new orthodoxy, seizing the opportunity to raise development values with ever more ambitious and complex designs. But urban density is still viewed with suspicion by much of the public, who associate it with rundown 1960s tower blocks, the spectre of Victorian overcrowding, or the nightmare future of Blade Runner’s vertical cities.
Nevertheless, densification must happen or else the world has to sacrifice an unprecedented volume of precious countryside. As Andrew Altman, the masterplanner behind the regeneration of London’s former Olympic Park, now managing principal of Fivesquares Development in Washington DC, says: “We’re going to have to densify, and in terms of the rehabilitation of cities, this is a good thing. But it’s not a choice.”
So, planners, developers and designers are having to consider what higher density should look like, what it will mean for the people living in cities, and how far it can go.
Will increasing density lead us to a more dynamic, wealthier, socially just and environmentally sustainable future? Or will it make the dystopian blight depicted in science fiction into a reality? And if a degree of density is a good thing, is there a point, as we reach further into the sky, at which the benefits start to break down?