Urban Density not Perfect, but Needed

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Wednesday, April 6th, 2016
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“This is the age of cities,” said Richard Rogers at an Urban Land Institute conference in Paris.

Rogers is a British architect noted for modernist and high-tech designs, including the Millennium Dome. He’s also the 2015 recipient of the Urban Land Institute’s J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. The Urban Land Institute is a non-profit organisation devoted to land use and property development.

“Cities are the economic engines and the cultural hearts of our society,” Rogers said, adding that unfortunately, “there are two problems tearing the world apart, and they are climate change and the gap between the rich and the poor. We need dense, mixed cities that open doors instead of close them.”

Dense cities, Rogers said, are more energy efficient than sprawling cities, and help to bring people together.

Barcelona, he noted, has roughly the same population as Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta, however, consumes 26 times more space, and has terrible traffic problems.

“Barcelona has virtually no problem with cars,” Rogers said.

It seems to be accepted today that cities are better for greenhouse gas emissions than suburbs, but this may not be true. When looking at energy use per person, a study reported in CityLab found that urbanites and suburbanites have roughly equal energy use. People living in exurban regions recorded higher energy use. The study, led by Jeffrey Wilson of Dalhousie University in Canada, tracked the housing and transportation emissions of 1,920 people in Nova Scotia’s Halifax region.

“Our findings indicate that individuals living in the suburbs generate similar amounts of GHG emissions (20.5kgCO2e person-1 day-1) to those living in the inner city (20.2kgCO2e person-1 day-1), challenging a widely held assumption that living in the urban centre is better for sustainability,” the study found.

Dense cities may be better in certain respects than suburbs, and they’re also crucial for maintaining and restoring wilderness areas. A challenge exists, however, in that many people don’t like cities, and many aspects of city living are unpleasant and even unhealthy. Design can address those factors. One approach was outlined by Rogers in describing an urban renaissance for the city of London. He said the city must:

  • reclaim London’s high streets
  • build mixed-use developments on brownfield sites
  • grow the transport network
  • protect the greenbelt and reinforce the network of green and public spaces within the city
  • retrofit and intensify London’s 600 localities

These approaches represent a human-centered approach to development, rather than one based on cars.

Another example shows how design can influence the perception of density. Rogers described how to build different buildings but at the same density.

“You can have a single tower, you can have row houses, or you can have a cluster. That’ll always give you the same density, so you have many options on how you plan,” he said.

Tall buildings, though, offer a unique challenge.

“Obviously it’s more difficult with tall buildings to create satisfactory ground levels”, Rogers noted.

Other strategies for improving design include tall towers designed with human health in mind, how urban planning can address mental health, and how beautiful architecture affects human health.

All of these approaches emphasize a recognition that cities play a pivotal role in the advancement of human civilization.

“We are seeing cities as the way forward in the development of man,” Rogers said.

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