Azara Blog: High density housing is not a bright idea

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Date published: 2007/06/15

Richard Fuller, in the BBC says:

We are fast becoming an urban species. More than half of the world's people now live in cities, and in the UK around 90% of us are urbanites.

As human populations increase, demand for new housing seems insatiable.

Over the past few decades, this has resulted in the rapid development of urban sprawl - vast expanses of low density suburban housing that have progressively eaten into the countryside around our cities.

Suburban sprawl means that many of us now live miles from "local" shops, our workplaces, friends' houses, and also miles from the nearest park or piece of countryside.

This can result in car-dependence, a lack of exercise, and exhausting, environmentally damaging daily journeys to and from scattered locations across our cities.

Proponents of the compact city have a new vision, which has captured the attention of governments.

They envisage smaller, high density cities that reduce the amount of countryside that needs to be swallowed up by urbanisation; places where people can live closer to work, more journeys can be made on foot or by bicycle, with less air and noise pollution, and a reduced collective carbon footprint to boot.

With such reductions in land-take in mind, the UK government now recommends that all new housing is built at 30-50 dwellings per hectare, more-or-less double the current density. That's an average of more than one household in an area the size of a tennis court.

This will pack a lot more people into the same space than we currently do. It is perhaps the single most important piece of housing legislation for decades, yet it is not well known and the potential consequences of it have not been widely debated.

There are significant downsides to the alluring vision of the compact city. Evidence from the UK tells us that green space is one of the first casualties of high density urban development.

Green spaces, including our own domestic gardens, are important even to the most hardened city slickers among us. They are places to sit and contemplate, meet with friends, walk the dog, go for a run, feed the ducks, for children to play.

Scientists have shown that green spaces promote community togetherness, reduce crime, improve our physical health and enhance our psychological well-being. They promote inward investment into cities, and even increase house prices.
The sprawling version of surburbia often supports a great variety of plants and animals. On top of this, there is a real danger that the quality of life of us all will suffer.

Although it is good to see someone argue against the high density rabbit hutches currently promoted by the urban planning elite, the arguments given are rather lacking. First of all, looking at household density rather than population density is missing the point that households are smaller these days (on average), so we are not squashing as many extra people in per acre as is implied in the article.

And the claim that "suburban sprawl means that many of us now live miles from ... the nearest park or piece of countryside" is both wrong and misleading. So-called suburban sprawl occurs, almost by definition, closer to the countryside than to the city. And the big benefit of suburban sprawl is that many people end up with decent gardens. And it is in private gardens that one finds the best biodiversity, not (most) parks and not (a lot of) countryside (which is mostly covered with industrial agriculture). The public parks in Cambridge are fairly typical. They have acres of grass and a few trees and not much else. They are green wastelands. They are useful for recreation, that is all. And the countryside near Cambridge is not much better, with a few exceptions (e.g. along the river outside of town). The university Botanic Garden is a park with a lot more than just grass and a few trees. However it is faux biodiversity, consisting mainly of non-native species collected for botanic, not biodiversity, reasons.

And if you stick people in hi-rise apartment blocks, as advocated by Le Corbusier and almost every other architect since, there is plenty of space for parks. It's just that these parks are not very useful from an environmental viewpoint. They are not really green except in colour.

And high density developments do not necessarily mean that people live closer to work. There are plenty of high density Victorian terraces near the railway station in Cambridge, but a large fraction of their occupants commute to London every day by train. Of course the ruling elite push the propaganda that since it is by train, rather than by car, it is somehow ok. It is not. The carbon footprint of London commuters, even those who live inside the M25, is huge.

Most people want to live in suburbia. But the ruling elite have decided that people should instead live in urban areas, whether they like it or not.

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