Housing density: does it stack up?

Density © alamy m39 bmpweb

High-density housing conjures images of the nightmare slum tenements seen in some other global cities, but can modern design make high density attractive in the UK?

In her 1961 book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, American urbanist Jane Jacobs identified density as one of her four key ingredients for thriving and diverse cities – contrary to academic theory at the time. She wrote that in order for cities to work, “there must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. Crucially, this includes a dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.”

Over the past two decades, successive UK central and local governments have belatedly agreed with this view and actively pursued policies that encourage greater residential density. Partially as a result of these, the UK stands today as the most densely populated large country in Europe. However, the country’s ongoing housing crisis means that the national policy of densification is set to intensify further with the recent announcement of two major changes to national and local planning policy.  

Last month the prime minister announced potentially sweeping changes to how land is developed in her draft proposals for the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). These included giving councils powers to refuse development on the grounds of insufficient density, renewed emphasis on brownfield development, further measures to promote the conversion of shops into housing and crucially, the reintroduction of minimum density targets for housing developments around transport hubs and in city centres.

These developments follow hot on the heels of last December’s draft London Plan, which, too, announced a wide-ranging set of new densification measures for the capital. As with the NPPF, greater densities are to be encouraged around city centre transport hubs, higher densities are to be promoted in the suburbs.

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