Density (or population density) refers to the number of people living in a given area. When done right, higher population density is a good thing.

It’s higher-density living that makes their streets and public spaces buzz. But, importantly, this density is achieved through a combination of well-designed mid-rise apartments (roughly six storeys) close to shops, services and public transport. This gives residents the best of both worlds: cities that are liveable and likeable.

The Conversation

Density is limited by supply (not demand)

Yarra has a population of roughly 100,000 people, but many people would like to move in. Our population density is not limited by demand, it’s is limited by supply, or the availability of houses and apartments. In turn, supply is limited by the lack of voter support for new developments, because many are of poor quality.

Supply is limited by anger at poor quality

Many new buildings are of poor quality; being ugly, inefficient, flimsy or of a design that can’t easily be adapted to different uses as times change. This is a bad outcome, decreasing voter support for the beautiful, solid, long lasting 4-6 storey buildings that we know can make an attractive city.

Outcome is lack of development

Push back from voters results in a lack of development. Many of our shopping streets still have 1-2 storey buildings. This is a bad outcome, preventing more people and traders from moving in. Refer to the two images below, of the intersection of Bridge Road and Burnley Street, showing little change to the built form.

Corner of Bridge and Burnley. Source: Richmond and Burnley Historical Society via Herschel Landes on Facebook.
Corner of Bridge and Burnley. Source: Herschel Landes on Facebook.

Solutions

If we’d like stable, high quality services, we need to choose between more density or higher taxes. The option of ‘good services, low density and low taxes’ simply does not exist.

Thus, our challenge is to develop a regulatory environment that encourages high quality construction, including beautiful, efficient, long-lasting 4-6 storey buildings that offer ‘layers’ such as shops on the ground floor, businesses above and residences above that. Combined with wide footpaths, protected bicycle lanes and frequent public transport; dense cities are a win-win for both existing and new residents.

Building density for everyday life. Image credit: Island Press

Right to the City

In 1967, Henri Lefebvre’s ‘The Right to the City’ called to reclaim the city as a co-created space. In her first term as the Mayor of Paris, from 2014 to 2020, Anne Hildago began this process by removing on-street parking and building bicycle lanes. As part of her 2020 re-election campaign, she proposes to go further and re-build Paris as a ‘commun’. Also in 2020, Todd Litmann has published updated version of ‘The Right to the City’, calling for more compact neighbourhoods:

The Right to the City means that anybody who wants—including physically, economically, or socially disadvantaged people—are able to find suitable, affordable housing in attractive, multi-modal, economically successful neighbourhoods. Policies that allow compact, multi-modal developments reduce traffic and parking congestion, accident risk, and pollution exposure, while increasing economic productivity. Everybody benefits, including people who live in automobile-dependent, sprawled locations.

Todd LItmann via Planetizen

Further guidance

Further guidance is also available from Infrastructure Australia ‘Planning Liveable Cities‘ and in ‘Transforming Australian Cities‘:

Conclusion

If done well, density is a good thing, delivering beautiful and liveable 20-minute neighbourhoods, where people of all ages, ranging from children to seniors, can move about independently. We need to encourage high quality construction, including beautiful, efficient, long-lasting 4-6 storey buildings that offer ‘layers’ such as shops on the ground floor, businesses above and residences above that.