You don’t have to build up or move out to tackle urban density

Suburbia or skyscrapers? marchello74/www.shutterstock.com

These days, we almost expect that any large-scale, big impact inner-city development will be a skyscraper, but for smaller cities in the UK these proposals can still appear as fairly extreme, and their approval contentious.

Take, for example, Cardiff, where a new 42-storey, 132m high building of affordable student accommodation is due to become Wales’ new tallest building. At just under half the height of London’s Shard, the new building seems paltry when compared to the world’s skyscrapers – but developments like this are still big news for smaller cities.

This contention with skyscrapers is something that has been hashed out again and again in cities all over the world. But rather than focus on how high we are building new housing developments, or where they are situated, it is time that we looked at the big picture.

Under pressure

The pressure to accommodate the housing demand in the UK is enormous. However, the opportunity is there to look more at holistic solutions that achieve balanced outcomes. Unlike London, cities such as Cardiff, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham, to name a few, are not short of space; they still have capacity to accommodate the housing needed, while promoting happiness and well-being.

Building high rise residential units should be given a great deal of thought, even in those cases when the setting can accommodate them appropriately. There is sufficient scientific evidence of the negative health and social implications of dense living. Nottingham, for example, among other cities, is currently demolishing its iconic towers the Lenton flats, to give way to more positive residential alternatives.

The issue of urban density has been the subject of debate and research for decades, if not centuries. Humans can adapt to their environments but they do so at a cost – and a number of studies have highlighted the links between density and stress as well as other physical and psychological disorders.

High-rise living can be isolating, separating residents from daily urban life and the activities that take place on the streets. Up to three or four storeys, however, one can still comfortably walk down to the street. From a window, one can connect visually and feel part of the public scene. For this reason, many built environment professionals believe four storeys is the maximum acceptable building height to achieve a decent level of connection, protect health and deliver the right level of density at the same time.

The heady heights of London. CristinaMuraca/www.shutterstock.com

Although it may then seem better for our health, low urban density and detached housing in “out of town” locations have been branded as one of the largest causes of greenhouse gases emissions because of car use. Lower densities also make it harder to develop a neighbourhood feeling: they increase travelling distances and may be more detrimental to farming and species preservation due to their potential expansion into agricultural land.

High or low

Despite the perks and pitfalls to both inner-city and low urban density living, people’s preference tends towards the latter. A study conducted in the US found that some people prefer low density suburbs because freestanding houses in open wide areas enhance their self-esteem and sense of ownership, and are convenient for driving and parking. Large UK housing developers have also found that this “American Dream” model also appeals to customers who want “character; neighbourhoods that feel like places with their own attractive identity”.

The major concern over increasing density is the public perception that privacy would be compromised and, although this issue can be resolved with intelligent design, traditional models remain largely the norm. Some aspects of design are essential to achieving a successful density level where people still find peace, a place where they can retreat from the stress of everyday life, a distinctive character, a sense of identity and community belonging.

But which approach should we choose – building up or moving out? There is still debate about whether humans should live in lower density settlements or if the damage caused to the environment through this approach is simply too large. Unfortunately, both ends of the spectrum – suburbia and high rise – still dominate landscapes. And while people’s preferences justify low density, the argument that higher density better delivers sustainability is often misinterpreted and misused to justify development led by land value and to secure larger economic gains.

Some recent schemes – such as Accordia in Cambridge and Trent Basin in Nottingham Waterside – demonstrate that common ground can be achieved, delivering models of medium density with compact yet green living as a compromise, to create desirable urban environments while also delivering on sustainability.

However, prototypes like these often require innovative and creative funding mechanisms to make schemes feasible and traditional residential development models are not currently sufficient to cope with all the pressures of the market and legislative frameworks. Until the planning, regulatory and financial mechanisms take the issues of environmental and social sustainability seriously, it is unlikely we will see positive changes in the design and delivery of residential schemes.

Perhaps a bigger effort is required from the built environment industry as a whole to find positive solutions to the issue of housing in UK urban areas. Skyscrapers should be more carefully considered for cities like Cardiff, where medium density developments are still viable and could provide the best of both worlds.