By Morwen Johnson
We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us (Winston Churchill)
It’s estimated that we need 240,000 to 245,000 additional homes each year in order to meet housing demand and need in England. Statistics show that we are consistently failing to meet this level of housebuilding but how we change this situation is a matter of debate. The UK Government’s recent Productivity Plan included proposals to make development on brownfield land easier as well as freeing up public sector land assets and supporting higher density housing around commuter transport hubs. Others are recommending more controversial solutions, such as increasing building within the green belt (for example see reports from London First and the Adam Smith Institute).
It seems inevitable that the future requires housing at greater density but, particularly in London, alarm is now being sounded about superdensity and potential hyperdensity developments, which have become the norm in many global cities.
What is high density development?
From a planning point of view, density is intrinsically linked with creating viable communities which have a population to make amenities and infrastructure sustainable and cost-effective. Higher density designs (in urban environments) also increase the amount of street activity and thus, the perceived safety and attractiveness of a place.
Appropriate density is of course relative to context, and guidance such as the London Plan density matrix reflects this. Although there is no hard and fast definition, within urban areas a general density of around 70 to 100 dwellings per hectare (dph) level is common. In terms of new developments in major city centres like London, superdensity has been used to describe densities over 150 dph (or 450-500 habitable rooms). Hyperdensity can mean 350 dph or more.
Higher-density living does not necessarily mean high rise buildings though – careful design can increase neighbourhood density via mixed-tenure mid-rise developments. A group of four London-based architectural practices recently published a report Superdensity which aimed to provide positive guidance on how to ‘combine ambitious densities with popular and familiar urban forms’.
Space as a luxury or a necessity
While this may at first sight appear to be a debate about the planning system, it actually raises more fundamental questions about the aspirations and expectations we have for how we live.
There is a legacy in Britain of thinking that high-density housing means tower blocks in undesirable areas. Much urban regeneration in recent years has focused on replacing high-rise buildings. Lower-rise developments can also be high-density, if well designed, so the issue is actually often about housing quality rather than increased density, and whether the housebuilding industry is delivering the types of housing that people want.
RIBA’s Future Homes Commission highlighted that a focus on number of bedrooms ignores the potential of rooms as functional spaces. Floor space in the UK for new build housing is the smallest in Europe. And research in 2012 suggested that people value natural light, space for storage and flexible spaces which allow for socialisation. There is also a general hierarchy of desirable housing which it is still often assumed that people will move through during their lifecourse, especially as they start families – i.e. starter flat, 2 bed flat, terraced house or maisonette, semi-detached house, detached house with garden – as well as a move from rented property to owner-occupier.
For many people however these aspirations are impossible. Drawing on 2001 Census data, research has shown that although social housing tenants make up only 21% of families with children, they make up 79% of those families living on the fifth floor of a building or above. In London, nearly one third (31%) of all families with children living in social housing were found to reside on the second floor or above.
Smaller dwelling sizes can also affect our health. Many people living in flats or tenements have to dry laundry inside, which has been shown in studies by the Mackintosh Environmental Architecture Research Unit and the University of Manchester to have health risks. Lack of outdoor space for children to play (whether communal or private garden space) also has negative impacts. It seems that many people have to downsize both their living space aspirations and their quality of life.
It’s hip to be dense
The fact that we pay a premium for space, just as people who can afford it can choose to pay more for housing near transport connections or in particular school catchment areas, is nothing new. But as the discussion on high-density housing and the quality of new housing shows, it can be argued that the trends of the housing market are disadvantaging a large proportion of the population, and also younger generations. Access to housing (and increasingly housing space) is becoming a highly political issue.
Public suspicion of high-density housing is being overcome through subtle rebranding – terms such as the ‘compact city’, ‘pocket housing’ and ‘micro-housing’ have a cool edge which try to appeal to young urban-living professionals. And many award-winning high-density schemes also now have a strong focus on communal gardens or space, providing elements that traditionally would be delivered in private space.
Regardless of the marketing (or policy impetus), the truth however is in the living. Do people feel they are compromising in their housing choices or is there a wider shift in aspirations? And more importantly, as space becomes a scarcer commodity, are we just introducing another marker of inequality into the mix?
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