Housing density is a conundrum that has been at the centre of housing debate for well over a century, responding to economic and social pressures at every turn. The argument for increasing density has broadly been to increase the profit on commercially developed sites, but as our population increases, placing ever greater pressure on our city centres, the conundrum becomes less about whether we should build at higher densities, but rather how this can best be achieved.
Our big cities – and surrounding conurbations – are littered with failed attempts at high-density living. The interpretation of a modern idyll, they stand alone in desolate landscapes, unloved and un-cared for, reminding us of the price of failure (execution, not vision). And there are just as many examples of inappropriately low-density estates in otherwise urban locales. Land-hungry and lifeless, these are as problematic as the socially stigmatised towers they were trying to replace.
Abundant too, are historic examples of successful high-density developments. Buildings we are all familiar with: tenements, terraces, the apartments of Paris and Barcelona, all show how large numbers of people can be accommodated in a vibrant, diverse city. The tenements of Glasgow were built on the simple principle of a height no greater than the width of the street before them to ensure light and a human proportion. Buildings articulated with bay windows, relief and ornament to enhance the street. Shops front the public thoroughfare, where people interact and life is animated throughout the day.
A successful housing development is a living, breathing thing. People are its lifeblood, but to thrive they need diversity, amenity and the capacity to adapt. Properly done, dense urban communities are a social and sustainable solution, placing people in close proximity to jobs, services, transport and entertainment.
Our own experience has been tentative, but tied closely to the communities we serve. Testing the edges of what people are prepared to accept, each project builds on the last as confidence grows and we learn from what we have achieved. Not necessarily pushing toward ever greater densities, but rather developing an understanding of what is appropriate to a particular site. The optimum density, after all, is frequently very different to the maximum density.
“[Density] does not mean less space, but less wasted space. It does not mean less greenery, but more: window boxes, gardens, parks and squares. It does not mean no cars, but fewer pointless, frustrating journeys and more efficient, economic and pleasant public transport.”
- Cities for a Small Country, 2000
Surely that is a city we all want to live in?