Britain must choose higher urban density instead of suburban sprawl

Stuart Baldock 6.03am

Demographers estimate that the UK population will increase to approximately 75 million by 2051. If this is true, the increase equals the population of two cities the size of London.

Therefore the UK is going to have to build many more houses. Even if demographers have over-calculated, life expectancy is increasing and there more households with single occupancy - both factors increase the demand for housing.

There is also the pressing need to enable first time buyers (FTBs) to get onto the property ladder. The typical FTB is now looking at having to pay over £150,000 for their first property - in London the average is more than £250,000. The average age for a FTB is now 35, and in London it is 43. This is partly a result of the lack of affordable credit, but the lack of suitable housing stock is critical.

The UK will soon be forced to answer the question nobody wants to confront: Are we favour of higher urban density or suburban sprawl?

The NIMBY argument that the UK is already developed enough is not one any political party can afford to entertain. Only 10 per cent of the UK is actually developed and this figure includes garden land - there is plenty of space to build more houses should we want to expand suburbs.

However, our preference ought emphatically to be in favour of higher-density development. Higher-density urban areas are more environmentally sustainable than suburban areas in the medium to long term (something that Nik wrote about recently). Whilst this assertion may seem counter intuitive, it is a popular misconception that because a suburban area is aesthetically ‘green’ - with grass, open spaces, trees etc - it is environmentally sustainable. The diametric opposite is true.

Compare emissions of climate altering greenhouse gases. As noted in a UN Population Fund paper published in 2009 “low-density suburban development is 2.0-2.5 times more energy and greenhouse gas intensive than high-density urban core development on a per capita basis”.

The typical Londoner produces in an average year only a little over half the UK average per capita of CO2. The per capita CO2 emissions of a London resident are approximately 6.18 tons - the UK average is approximately 11 tons.

This impressive statistic could be better still and the results emulated by other UK cities. It could be achieved by abandoning the very British fascination with suburbs and embracing high-rise / high-density city centre living such as has taken place on the continent.

The reason the average London resident produces less CO2 than the UK average is due to the proximity of their house to their place of work. Reduced travel distance = reduced CO2 emissions. Even suburban trains and metro’s emit CO2, a 5 mile journey by train emits 0.4kg of CO2 per person. The ultimate goal of urban development should be to make cities as compact as possible with as many people as possible living within walking or cycling distance to work. Not only will this have positive environmental benefits – it will have positive health benefits. An advantage urban dwellers have over their suburban counterparts is significantly lower rates of obesity and associated diseases.

It is true that the UK has not a comfortable history with high-rise / high-density developments. Many of the post-WW2 experiments in municipal housing have blighted the views of entire generations to high-rise living. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Aylesbury Estate in South-East London. It was described by the press in the 1980s and 1990s as “Hell’s Waiting Room”.

Other high-rise estates around the country have had similarly bad reputations. Many became known as areas of high crime, social depravation and depressive environments. Therefore it probably came as a shock to many residents and Ladbrooke Grove locals when in 1998, the Department of Culture Media and Sport, gave Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower a Grade-II* listing. This was due to the building being an early example of the ‘New Brutalist’ school of architecture.

We should not let past mistakes cloud our judgement about the kind of city we need to build for the future. It should not be beyond the skills of architects to design buildings in which people today want to reside. It may though necessitate some rather draconian restrictions on building in the urban fringe, as well as some imaginative use of Section 106 agreements to get developers to construct mixed use high-density buildings.

Follow Stuart on Twitter @stuartbaldock