In defence of density: the benefits of living in a highly populated city 

Simply dividing an area of land by the overall population can be misleading, and we should be looking at “mixity” instead to create of liveable, functional, vibrant communities
People living and working in proximity can lead to ecosystems of professions and companies, leading to economic activity | Photo: Alamy

By Martha Thorne

Martha Thorne is a distinguished professor at the IE School of Architecture and Design in Madrid, and senior adviser at the Henrik Frode Obel Foundation 

09 May 2023

For some people, the notion of high urban density conjures images of skyscrapers, people living in monotonous housing blocks, a concrete landscape.  

Not so. Jane Jacobs, the 20th-century urban activist and author of the canonical book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, supported close-knit communities in cities and espoused the positive values of walkable streets, knowing one’s neighbours and pedestrian-orientated cities.  

More recently, Carlos Moreno, inventor of the 15-minute city concept, suggested that density and “mixity” are essential for such a strategy to be successful and to contribute to the creation of liveable, functional, vibrant communities. 

Density, often calculated as the number of people who live in a square kilometre of land, is one of those broad statistics that may get the conversation started, but needs careful examination.  

Simply dividing an area of land by the overall population gives only a bird’s eye view, and this can be misleading. For example, Paris has an overall density of about 21,000 per square kilometre, while the 18th arrondissement has more than 52,000 residents per square kilometre.  

So, what do we mean when we advocate for dense and liveable urban environments? What’s the right balance here, and what does it look like on the ground?  

Each city is different, but all require a sufficient level of urban services to meet our needs (housing, education, health, culture, employment, etc) and foster an idea of belonging. However, cities also need to permit anonymity, privacy and individuality.  

Higher densities can support community life and the individual, and can lead to more facilities, efficiencies of scale, and funding systems to pay for services and infrastructures. Cities exist so that, through community, we can provide opportunities and services for all residents. Cities are generators of new ideas, commerce and education.  

The key is to make cities liveable – physically, socially, environmentally. Liveability is often mistakenly associated with ample private space for residents. However, it has more to do with the presence of cohesive communities and streets with a multiplicity of activities, parks and leisure spaces throughout the urban fabric, than it does with trying to lower urban density numbers.  

Liveability is often mistakenly associated with ample private space for residents

There are many excellent reasons to seek the appropriate density within cities. Health, for example, improves when people are able to walk as part of their daily routine. Moreover, fewer cars circulating also means cleaner air for all.  

Communities benefit, too, which has knock-on advantages. For example, thanks to people living and working in proximity, ecosystems of professions and companies may be formed, leading to economic activity.

Such proximity can also foster unexpected collaboration, which can in turn spark new innovations and lead to growth in creative industries or the launch of new research initiatives.  

The question remains: what type of city do we want in the future, and for whom? Land use policies and patterns, just as urban amenities (or the lack thereof), reflect our values about accessibility, equality, sustainability and the purpose of our cities.  

Not all activities and uses are compatible, but seeing the city as a set of dynamic ecosystems where multiple activities come together, and where diversity is a strength, illustrates the need for density. And this density can be liveable and even enjoyable if accompanied by strategies congruent with our policies, urban services and the quality of our built environment.