Increasing density in our towns and cities is a more sustainable option than building new towns full of eco homes. But unlocking the funds that make this approach possible is not easy, says Jon Rouse

Did you know that the city of New York is one of the most environmentally sustainable places in the US? Surprising, isn’t it? But the Green Building Council has found, empirically, that New York has a smaller ecological footprint than any other US state, despite having a population that is larger than all but 12 of those states.

How can the city of excess also be the city of environmental restraint? The answer is very simple: density. The Green Building Council has shown that even a town full of the oldest, draughtiest accommodation in a dense urban centre will almost always provide a more environmentally efficient form of living than a new town full of eco-homes in a greenfield location.

The trump cards are embedded energy and sustainable transport. Intensifying the use of an existing urban area means that we are optimising the use of the buildings and infrastructure that are already there, rather than building anew. And, of course, the more people we have living in an area, the closer the distances between amenities, so many more people walk and cycle and public transport is more viable.

At this stage you might be getting a sense of deja vu. Didn’t we learn and apply all this in the nineties? Isn’t that why we introduced sequential tests, concentrated developments in our urban centres, increased re-use of brownfield land and so on? The answer is yes, we did, and the beneficiaries are there to see – Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow are just three examples of cities renewed.

The question now is: are we about to forget what we have already learned? At the very time when the environmental imperative has never been more urgent, it may be that, in the dash for housing numbers, we are about to relinquish some of our gains.

So before son and daughter of Swampy take to the trees and bunkers again to oppose the roll-out of eco-towns and various other urban expansions, I want to make the case for redoubling our efforts to intensify some of our existing urban areas to reduce the need for damaging greenfield development.

I do, however, have to declare a rather significant vested interest: Croydon. We might never be Barcelona, but our town centre could accommodate another 20,000 people without building an extra metre of new road. It would require an investment of a few hundred million pounds in upgrading two rail stations, taming a couple of major roads and two extra tram lines – about £15,000 per new home all in.

At the very time when the environmental imperative has never been more urgent, it may be that, in the dash for housing numbers, we are about to forget what we have already learned and relinquish some of our gains.

But as many other settlements are finding, if you are not one of the small number of designated growth areas, it’s not easy to access the resources to invest in the infrastructure improvements that will unlock the intensification. So what to do?

In Croydon we’ve opted to set up an urban regeneration vehicle, an off balance sheet joint venture with a private sector partner.

It will help us achieve some of our ambitions but will always be limited by the need to treat each project on its own commercial terms to the satisfaction of our private sector partner.

An alternative might be the proposed community infrastructure levy that will give local authorities the opportunity to build on the potential of tariff schemes similar to those in Ashford, Milton Keynes and Bedfordshire. However, for the levy to be successful, it must be truly local, allowing local authorities and the business community to determine their own priorities at a borough or sub-regional basis. Also, local authorities must be able to borrow against future receipts.

Finally, what about the role of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA)? With an annual budget of £5bn, the HCA will be local authorities’ main partner in driving intensification. We will need the HCA to assist us with land assembly, masterplanning, infrastructure investment and, who knows, perhaps even some direct development.

As I travel across the country I can see that there are still many opportunities left for intensifying our towns and cities through regenerative schemes. Environmentally, socially and indeed economically it is the right thing to do and we should prioritise our public investment accordingly.