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Embracing “good” density should be a priority for cities, according to Density: Drivers, Dividends, and Debates, a new report published by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The report makes the case for investing in density and offers an agenda for advocacy, demonstration, and public education on density issues. This report is the first piece of work in the Institute’s new density initiative, which seeks to increase knowledge of density in the real estate industry and beyond; address the potential social, economic, and environmental benefits of investing in density; and devise strategies to make density a priority for the public sector.

Written by Greg Clark, ULI Europe senior fellow, and Emily Moir, director of the Business of Cities Ltd., the report argues that well-managed and well-serviced densification is the best strategy for contending with growing populations in cities. It maintains that dense cities minimize energy consumption and environmental impact while fostering productivity and innovation and supporting livability, through better connectivity, amenities, open spaces, and social interaction.

The report draws upon on a survey of ULI members and interviews with international city experts and industry leaders on whether the case for living more densely has long-term benefits for people, the environment, and investments. The report reveals the growing importance the real estate industry is placing on density as populations in cities continue to increase: 89 percent of global ULI members surveyed[1] for the report felt that the issue of density had become very important or critical in the last five years.

“Density should not be a dirty word,” said ULI Europe CEO Lisette van Doorn. “In most cases, density is the best way to accommodate economic change and population growth, providing the optimal returns for society and the environment while also creating value that can be captured and shared, and making our cities more flexible. But the world does not yet know how important densification is or how it can best be achieved. Therefore, we must commit ourselves to meeting this gap in knowledge and skills and to a new generation of advocacy, education, and inspiration about density.”

“The efficient, effective, and responsible use of land is a goal that would be a win-win for all cities, their businesses, and their citizens; the key question, though, is how cities can achieve this while quickly absorbing the significant increases in population that are flowing from the world’s continuing rapid urbanization,” said Rosemary Feenan, director of global research for JLL and chair of the ULI Europe Policy and Practice Committee. “Densification may be an obvious answer, but how to deliver successful densification is not so obvious and is one of the most important topics of this urban decade. Good density will mark out the next generation of winning cities.”

The report offers the following agenda for achieving successful density in cities worldwide:

  • Increase evaluation of city densities across the world and catalog the “ingredients” of success.
  • Identify whether a global density benchmark can be developed to protect land from urban sprawl.
  • Train planners and urbanists to be bolder and more effective in planning for density.
  • Provide support for city leaders to learn how to promote density.
  • Mount and disseminate demonstration initiatives that reveal how density works for livability.
  • Support long-term planning that delivers for the future citizens and not just for present preferences.

Within the report are characteristics and examples of both “good” and “bad” density. Good density includes a mix of land uses, and mixed-income communities; high-volume, reliable public transport; an overarching strategic vision; attention to social and economic needs; high quality of life and livability for residents; public and open spaces; flexibility; high-quality urban design; environmental benefits; and limited impact on existing settled neighborhoods and places.

The criteria for good and bad density were informed in part by survey respondents, 78 percent of whom cited livability as a key outcome of successful density. The survey also underscored the importance of sound infrastructure: 80 percent of respondents cited good infrastructure as a priority for creating successful density.

Case studies of ten global cities—Atlanta, Barcelona, Hamburg, Mexico City, Oslo, Paris, Seoul, Singapore, Toronto, and Vienna—also informed the report’s criteria for successful and unsuccessful density. Paris and Vienna are the highest performers on the positive density benchmarks, while Mexico City is the worst performer on density indicators. The report also notes that Toronto does particularly well at minimizing crime, congestion, and pollution while still remaining a relatively dense city.

The report outlines some barriers to successful density—for example, a negative public perception. Among the most pressing public concerns about density—according to survey respondents—are overcrowding and loss of privacy, loss of green space, and motor vehicle traffic and congestion. According to the report, knowledge sharing and advocacy are key to shifting these unfavorable public attitudes on density.

Planning processes also present a challenge, since local governments tend to prioritize short-term planning over the need to accommodate growing urban populations in the future. “It is difficult to plan effectively for growth in a democracy which prioritizes current preferences over future needs. Political process is always more attuned to those who have been here, versus those who would like to be, or those who have not yet arrived,” said Michael Spies, senior managing director at Tishman Speyer, in an interview for the report.

[1] 194 leaders in real estate and allied professions were surveyed for the report.