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Redesigning cities

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Some myths about urban density


To put an end to the urban sprawl which gobbles up natural habitats and farmland, to the development of single-family detached housing which requires huge amounts of space, and to the increased road traffic that this generates, there's only one solution: densifying cities. "However, this idea is not popular with the general public," explains Eric Charmes, a senior lecturer at the French Institute of Urban Planning.

People may have a mistaken view of the density of a neighborhood (1). In fact, contrary to popular belief, high-rise apartment buildings in suburban housing estates, surrounded by vast open spaces, are no denser than the center of a village. And both these types of housing are four times less dense than a block of Haussmann buildings in the center of Paris. "In fact, Paris is one of the densest cities in the world," Charmes says. "With the exception of some cities in India or China, the only other comparable city is New York. So density isn't synonymous with social distress. In Paris, those who can afford it pay a great deal for the right to live in an extremely dense environment. It's the attraction of city centers, where there are services, cultural facilities, public transport and so on, which explains why density is not only accepted but sought out. People obviously don't want to live in crowded areas if they aren't attractive!"  
However, there are some reservations about the positive effect of urban density on the environment. Jean-Pierre Orfeuil, a professor at the Paris Institute of Urban Planning, points to the 'barbecue effect' or 'compensatory mobility', which drives people who live in city-centers out of town at weekends.  "With the same income, they are more likely than those living on the outskirts to travel long distances, using energy-hungry means of transport such as planes. Indeed, a Norwegian study suggests that an intermediate type of housing, such as dense residential suburbs, might be the best compromise," Charmes concludes. 

1 – The ratio of the number of square meters of living space to the total area of a neighborhood.

CNRS    sagascience