Whether Growing or Shrinking, Cities Can and Should Densify, a New Report from ULI Europe Says
October 28, 2015
The topic of density in Europe’s cities will be examined in further detail at the upcoming ULI Europe Conference in Paris, 2-3 February, 2016. To explore the programme or register, please visit europeconference.uli.org
ULI Europe has undertaken a broad effort to investigate the issue of densification and how European cities can densify in ways that keep the focus on people and create livable, vibrant, and thriving places. While discussions of density in the popular media often focus on the rapidly urbanizing megacities of Asia and Africa, the question of how to develop land most efficiently without sacrificing quality of life or opportunity is as urgent in Europe as it is elsewhere, a new report argues.
The Density Dividend: Solutions for Growing and Shrinking Cities says that density is a tool applicable to all cities no matter where they are in their growth cycles. In Europe, cities vary widely in terms of population growth: a few are attracting newcomers at a steady clip, whereas many others are steadily losing population through out-migration or low birth rates, or both. Several cities—particularly those in the former Eastern Bloc—built isolating residential towers, sprawling single-use suburbs, and gated communities that are now proving to be liabilities.
“Density is an essential component of how cities manage and accommodate the ebb and flow of urban change,” write coauthors Greg Clark, senior fellow at ULI Europe, and Tim Moonen, director of intelligence at the Business of Cities Ltd. “Today, the drivers of population growth, economic change, new lifestyle demands, and sustainability mean Europe’s cities have little choice but to optimize their land use and reimagine density for people,”
The Density Dividend was recently discussed at a panel on density and sprawl held during the 2015 ULI Fall Meeting in San Francisco. Alice Breheny, global cohead of research at TH Real Estate, a key sponsor of the report, remarked that the rural-to-urban migration occurring elsewhere in the world “finished a long time ago” in Europe. Nonetheless, European cities still need to densify in order to attract consumers who are moving to cities not out of economic necessity, but simply because they want to.
“The population isn’t growing organically anymore, apart from in a handful of locations,” Breheny said during the panel. “The move of people, urbanization, and densification is more about choice or the global nature of the workforce now and how mobile that is.” (Watch a video of this session.)
Published in October, The Density Dividend is a follow-up to an earlier publication, Density: Drivers, Dividends, and Debates, which set out to define what good density looks like, address myths and misperceptions around density, and differentiate the well-intentioned but misguided attempts at densification of the past from current efforts.
To illustrate how density can help cities regardless of whether they are growing, shrinking, or slowly rebounding, the report offers case studies of six cities that are at different points in their evolutionary paths. It identifies challenges each city faces in terms of maximizing density’s potential to suit its needs as well as strategies that are working to meet demand in scalable and sustainable ways, accentuate assets to attract new investment, or consolidate in cases where land is vacant and underused. The report’s findings were informed by forums held in each of the cities where feedback from stakeholders was incorporated into the final report.
Below is a look at the six case studies and how densification can make each more competitive.
Strongly Growing Cities: London, Istanbul, Stockholm
London, Istanbul, and Stockholm are identified as cities that continue to attract new businesses and residents in search of opportunity. Their central dilemma is how to ramp up development in ways that are human in scale.
London and Stockholm are two growing cities that are densifying thoughtfully, according to the report. Long-range planning has been key to their efforts.
In London, the London Housing Strategy has created a clear blueprint for delivering 42,000 new homes within a year. The strategy divides the city into 18 housing zones, which will allow local authorities to assemble and package brownfield land for development and obtain planning permission in advance. A “housing bank” that provides loans and other banking services to developers and housing associations to fund new home construction and renovation has been created as part of the strategy.
Stockholm has streamlined its investments around three to four nodes that have achieved a critical mass in order to focus its efforts to attract investments to assets and institutions. The report singles out Vällingby, a 60-year-old planned community in Stockholm whose planners understood then the importance of locating jobs close to housing. The city is now redeveloping parts of Vällingby to include more retail, open space, and cultural amenities.
The report is critical of Istanbul for essentially ignoring a master plan that was developed
in 2007 and says that the city would benefit from a more deliberate approach. Yet the report also praises specific projects that have successfully created mixed-use areas within high-density environments. Atakoy, near the Ataturk Airport, has evolved from being a low-rise community to a high-rise, mixed-use waterfront destination that attracts tourists and—with new multifamily construction on the horizon—new residents. Investments in resilience measures like earthquake-resistant design have made higher densities in Istanbul possible, the report says.
Bounce-Back Cities: Birmingham, Warsaw
Like London, Birmingham has benefited from strong political leadership behind efforts to densify its urban core without sacrificing place making or life at the street level, the report explains.
The city aims to stimulate business creation among high-wage industries like digital media, as well as creative and financial services through the City Centre Enterprise Zone, which offers discounted business tax rates, expedited high-speed internet, and other incentives. Birmingham’s city council also adopted its Big City Plan in 2010, which encourages high-rise development in the city center and medium-density residential development along its outskirts, which can be seen in projects like Symphony Court and Liberty Place. The report recognizes the city’s “flourishing retail sector” as essential to making density work.
Warsaw, one eastern European city that is attracting new population, must contend with land use patterns left over from the Soviet era. Low-density, single-use developments like Bialolecka in north Warsaw were inadequately serviced by infrastructure and transportation. Now, private developers are learning lessons from the past and are creating new mixed-use communities like Saska in the Praga South district and Powisle, a fashion, cultural, and residential district on the banks of the Vistula River. As a public landowner, the Polish State Railways system is taking a proactive role toward dense, transit-oriented development by assembling land around key stations for development.
Shrinking Cities: Dresden
Dresden is actively engaging a process of consolidation where it can derive the best and highest use from vacant and fragmented land within its urban core, the report notes. Destroyed by World War II Allied bombing raids, Dresden’s city center went through a major postwar reconstruction with several example of historic architecture and landmarks preserved. Yet, it lost much of its urban population as a result of this wide-scale destruction. People fled the city for the suburbs, which were eventually incorporated into separate entities.
Now, however, Dresden wants to draw people back to the city center and has been encouraging infill development and, through new zoning regulations, the integration of retail, leisure, and commercial activities into residential buildings. The city has consolidated several cultural institutions like the Dresden State Operetta and the High School of Music and Chamber Music Hall into Wilsdruffer Vorstadt, a thriving urban neighborhood in the 19th century that was decimated during World War II. In an effort to redensify the district, city leaders have invested millions of euros in an effort to clean it up and repopulate it.
Find more resources on ULI Europe’s Density page.