Density shouldn’t be a dirty word.

For many Australians, the mere mention of ‘the d word’ evokes forests of high-rise apartment buildings, crowded trains and congested streets.

But they forget that density can also mean museums and art galleries, café culture and festivals, diverse dining options and efficient transport systems.  Density can also generate employment, wealth and investment.

In The New Geography of Jobs, economist Enrico Moretti argues that density of workers attracts business investment, or as former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg says, ‘talent attracts capital far more effectively and consistently than capital attracts talent’.

While increasing density can support economic, environmental and spatial drivers – saving money, resources and space – it doesn’t have to be at the cost of Australia’s highly-prized quality of life.

Ask any Australian to make a list of the cities they find most attractive and aesthetically appealing, and I’ll wager European cities such as Paris, Rome, Milan and Barcelona will be there.  These cities are dense – and pride themselves on their density.

Despite a population density of 21,000 people per square kilometre (compared with Sydney’s 2,000 people), Paris is unrelentingly elegant, and Parisians and visitors delight in the walkable, winding streets lined with ground-level boutiques and cafes, peppered with tranquil gardens and public places.

Interestingly, a recent investigation by the Paris Urban Planning Agency has found that the perception of density in Paris varies depending on the neighbourhood’s urban amenity.  In fact, some neighbourhoods perceived as too dense are often less so than inner-city neighbourhoods that are much lauded for their quality of life.

The study found that neither human density (the number of inhabitants per square kilometre) nor the amount of built surface area (the floor to area ratio) was the factor that swayed perception.  Instead, it was a combination of urban quality and coherence.  Neighbourhoods that had a high level of urban amenity – including restaurants and cafes, transport and leisure options and green spaces – were perceived as less dense, even if they were more so than places with less amenity.  The key is the skilful balance of function, social and architectural diversity.

In his presentation at Green Cities in March, MIT’s Kent Larson showed the audience repeated images of global cities that arose in concentric rings of density around a town centre, market or water source – with a 500 metre radius being as far as people wanted to walk carrying water.  The density of these older cities, built long before the car, was dictated by how far people could travel on foot or by horse.  This made these places eminently walkable.

Walk Score measures the distance to amenities such as restaurants, shops and public transport, and rates the ‘walkability’ of your location (and incidentally, Walk Score is being used as a tool to help project teams measure walkability in the new Green Star – Design & As Built rating tool.)

Paris scores a perfect ‘walk score’ of 100 – and so does Milan.  Rome and Barcelona are not far behind, with walk scores of 98.  In comparison, the top American city for walking is New York, with a score of 88.  Sydney – Australia’s most walkable city – scores just 63, but is a long way ahead of Darwin (45), Hobart (44) and Canberra (40).  These cities are considered car-dependent, with most errands requiring a car.

So if the word density is a dirty word, perhaps it’s time to replace it with ‘walkable’?  This would mean reimagining our cities as places in which people can walk to work, pick up fresh produce on the way home from a farmers’ market, drop in their shoes to be repaired, stop in at their local café and enjoy the pleasures of both lingering and bustling.  None of these pleasures can be found at a big box retailer or sitting in traffic.

In Australia, a nation that sees itself as one boundless plain, the prejudice against density runs deep.  We have justified urban sprawl on the basis that there will always be plenty of land to develop.  That may be true, but it doesn’t mean we’re creating places that are good for people.

In my next article, I’ll be looking at an issue that goes hand-in-hand with density – how we use our space and the benefits (and intricacies) of compact living. With greater density and smaller, more flexible spaces, goals such as affordability and liveability may yet be achieved.