Design firm HASSELL has released a study that demonstrates the potential of urban density in some of the world’s largest cities.

The firm explores the spatial possibilities for urban residential housing on existing sites across Sydney, London and Shanghai.

The Urban Housing Challenge study reveals a design response that can nurture smart growth in urban areas. It shows that it is indeed possible to deliver a dense dwelling that combines accessible amenities and green space, not just one or the other.

It also presents a solution that doesn’t result in a sky-high residential tower.

The study was prompted by the growing demand from Sydneysiders to secure affordable urban housing. The firm also observed similar challenges in London and Shanghai.

Exploring the redevelopment of an existing site, HASSELL looked at a typical block of walk-up apartments in the suburb of Auburn. The firm worked to reconfigure the layout to achieve greater space and livable results on the same footprint.

The new design significantly increased the number of dwellings and the usable space, showcasing the opportunity for non-residential mixed-use such as retail or a shared work hub.  Here is what was achieved:

  • Three walk up buildings transformed to enhanced living standards
  • 36 apartments increased to 70 apartments
  • 2,600 square metres of floor area increased to 5,000 square metres of living space
  • 570 square metres of open space increased to 1,000 square metres of open space
Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

A diagram showcasing the concept also shows increased separation around the buildings, leading to greater privacy and the consolidation of spaces into one large central space. There is also the opportunity to embed greenery on residential balconies and utilise rooftops and terraces to introduce shared public space.

“Every major city is experiencing unstoppable population growth. We need to start looking at how we accommodate our growing populace without having to resort to spreading at the outskirts and encroaching on valuable farm land,” said the study’s author and sector leader for Urban Design at HASSELL, David Tickle. “The key is to stop taking a “cookie-cutter” approach to our suburban and inner-city apartments, and start applying smarter design that works to site conditions to maximise the use of available space while keeping the amenity for residents foremost in mind.”

Tickle, who has just returned from presenting the study in Shanghai, shared some further insight on the study:

Australian Cities

The study’s key to understanding cities involves an extensive comparison of what each city was doing well while understanding the challenges and conditions in each location.

However in Australia, Tickle has observed a common resistance to urban density.

“Australians have historically been reluctant to consider living in higher densities,” he said. “Our cities have grown via lower density suburban sprawl, which is not sustainable because housing starts to encroach on productive farmland and ecological areas.

“The most important question facing Australian cities now is how do we drive growth and accommodate more residents through higher density without necessarily expanding the city’s footprint?”

This prompts future research objectives for the firm. HASSELL is now keen to explore the opportunities in what Tickle calls “middle ring suburbs,” which are already achieving a slightly higher density with room for more potential.

Do We Have To Build Sky High?

While some of the developments may be tall, it doesn’t mean they need to be 30 or 40 storeys. Low-density developments can deliver comparable solutions, as is the case in cities like Paris and Copenhagen.

“We need to understand that density and building height are not one and the same,” said Tickle. “There are many examples of cities that have achieved a high level of density without building high-rise towers.”

Tickle also spoke about the misconception of a sky-high city like Shanghai, which is perceived to have higher density. However, London with much fewer residential towers and more six to seven storey buildings actually has a higher density than the Asian city.

How Small Will We Go?

Many people have future visions of tight apartments, transformer furniture and a balcony for one, but Australia offers more residential space in its units than many other locales.

“The average new house in Sydney  measures approximately 250 square metres which is about 10 per cent larger than any comparative country such as New Zealand or the US,” Tickle said.

2013 was the first time in a decade that this statistic dropped by two per cent, demonstrating the already shifting mindset about the benefits associated with more modest sized housing.

“Our thinking is shifting naturally towards making the choice of offsetting less private space with proximity to public space,” Tickle said.

Tickle also doesn’t envision that Australians will be living in incredibly small spaces such as the apartments in Hong Kong, due to the country’s lifestyle.

“I think Australians will still desire a more generous living space – but people are certainly starting to compromise on just how much space they need if they’re receiving other benefits in terms of location, amenity and lifestyle,” he said.

Not all density is created high

Not all density is created high

Urban Urgency

Each location differs, but global urbanisation is continuing and should be an important consideration.

According to a July 2014 United Nations report, “54 per cent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050.”

“Projections show that urbanisation combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa,” the report states.

Indeed, Tickle notes that in China, 300 million people are expected to move to cities in the next decade.

Tomorrow’s Urban Dwelling

Tickle referred to two Sydney projects as benchmarks that deliver the type of dense solution that can bring significant benefits to urban dwellers.

The first is the highly celebrated One Central Park development, which combines high-rise residential with a focus on green space and a public park.

“One Central Park demonstrates the advantages of density and public benefit,” Tickle said. “Although the scale and height is significant, the delivery of the new public spaces and new green spaces demonstrate a site-wide sustainability strategy and a significant contribution to the wider area.”

Tickle also credits Green Square for implementing a whole lot of public benefits including a new town centre, a major new residential, retail and cultural hub.

Green Square offers a live, work, play precinct

Green Square offers a live, work, play precinct

He also said a diverse community is moving into the area. It is no longer home to just the traditional, professional urban dweller, but families and seniors as well.

While the walk-up-model HASSELL explores is primarily residential, the firm wants to explore non-residential uses such as retail and commercial space.

“A growing number of Australians are keen to live and work in the same area, even in the same building, Tickle said. “This ensures a precinct will always be alive and active throughout the week, while also reducing demands on public transport and roads.”

“There is even the potential in a larger development where everyone could share typlically underused domestic spaces – such as spare rooms – on a roster or booking system.”

So while most things in life require compromise, this study has demonstrated that when it comes to living, it is possible to have it all; a not so small urban dwelling with enough private and green space that could create the next Australian dream of home ownership.