With each city that I travel to I see a different place with a different culture and different problems. However what all the good ones have in common is that they get population density right.
Before I dive into that, let me tell you a bit about the humble Japanese konbini.
The Japanese convenience store
First let me just say that if you live in a Western country, you don’t know what a convenience store is. No, your bastardised imported 7-11 doesn’t count. That’s just a petrol station without petrol.
Japanese convenience stores (konbini) are a thing of wonder. They are, in the truest sense, convenient. Selling everything from healthy meals, basic groceries, snacks and alcohol, to socks, shirts and toothbrushes. Most things you need in daily life can be found at a konbini.
Because they are of such true convenience, and because Japanese cities have the density to support these “secondary-use” economies, they are in such an unbelievable abundance that with a high confidence you can stand in front of one store and have the next one in sight.
You don’t cross the street for a konbini because by the time the lights change you will have reached another one on your side of the road.
Across the whole of Japan the average distance between two konbini is 528 meters, while in Tokyo’s Urban Area it is just 149 meters! That means on average you will never be more than a 2 minute walk from a konbini. In the main wards of Tokyo, it’s more like 30 seconds.
No this isn’t Tokyo at night, but rather what you get when you map every konbini in Tokyo.
Like we explored in part 2 of this series, this marvel of extreme convenience is only possible because people in Japan’s dense cities walk as a primary mode of transport. If you have an automobile based city, then each convenience store has to have parking for it’s customers (which is actually extremely expensive) and hence won’t get the turnover to be profitable.
The opposite to dense urban living is urban sprawl (or more accurately, suburban sprawl). Sprawl is when populations spread out thinly across the landscape, living in relatively low densities that use up a lot of space. It’s when families choose to live luxuriously out in the suburbs in a free standing house with a double garage and spacious backyard.
Suburban sprawl only became possible because of the automobile. Before we had the ability to move quickly over long distances, living far from the city was an inconvenience. Because of this, any attack on sprawl is also an attack on automobile dominant way-of-life.
Urban sprawl is bad, I’m sorry
Here’s the clincher; urban sprawl creates a lifestyle that isn’t sustainable for the masses. When we all try live like the top 1% we create a range of problems for ourselves that are impossible to overcome with large populations.
The critical energy drain in a typical American suburb is not the Hummer in the driveway; it’s everything else the Hummer makes possible—the oversized houses and irrigated yards, the network of new feeder roads and residential streets, the costly and inefficient outward expansion of the power grid, the duplicated stores and schools, the two-hour solo commutes. – Green Metropolis, David Owen
- It’s bad for the environment – the more we spread out, the more we need to drive to get around. This means more highways, which ironically means more cars. Urban sprawl in large populations also [means more air pollution per capita.
- It’s bad for your health – Suburban sprawl means that we spend more time in our cars to get around, meaning less time walking. There is a positive correlation between sprawl and obesity. Not to mention car-related fatalities.
- It’s bad for city culture – As we looked at in part 2 when people use cars as the main mode of transport, you stifle secondary-use businesses and with that city culture. City culture affects more than just the urbanites, city culture is what attracts people to live in your city, and hence help your economy prosper. Without a good city, your suburbs wouldn’t exist.
- It’s bad for minorities and equality – When populations spread out thinly into vast suburbia it becomes a lot easier for people to gather and segregate. The high cost of living in a sprawling city means that rich neighbourhoods stay rich, and poor stay poor. Low income households get pushed out farther from economic centres, stifling class mobility.
- It’s bad for the economy long term – Infrastructure (like electricity, gas, water, etc) and services (ambulance, hospitals, garbage collection, etc) are required to cover long distances which makes them inherently costly and inefficient. Look at the failed National Broadband Network that has cost Australians over AUD 50 billion, has been going for over 10 years, and isn’t expected to finish until early 2020s.
The only way to scale
Take my hometown of Sydney as an example. Sydney covers a rather large area of roughly 12,000km² and has a population of just over 5 million people. Sydney is mostly suburban with little residential living happening in it’s city (hence being named the Central Business District).
Sydney is the all about that suburban sprawl. People live in big houses with big backyards, but then pay the price with big commutes and big traffic. Despite having a fairly small population, Sydney is already feeling the strain with it’s current population size. Incessant traffic, long commutes, and nowhere to build new highways.
Compare Sydney to it’s antithesis; Tokyo. The Greater Tokyo Area covers roughly the same size as Sydney (14,000km²) but supports a population of 36 million people! Japan’s density means that it can keep around 70% of it’s land for natural forest.
In it’s current form, Sydney would need to level and suburbanise one-and-a-half Tasmanias to support the population of Tokyo.
Without higher density cities, humanity will spread out across the globe destroying more forests, creating more transit pollution, and segregating people further.
Cool, so what does density look like?
This is what most people think of when you say the words “dense urban living”:
This is not true. This is really just what you get when you combine conventional urban planning theory with big-money property developers. This is not the goal.
Rather, when you think of good urban living, you should think of something more like this:
In a nutshell, good urban living:
- is not monotonous or boring
- is vibrant, diverse, and human.
- does mean lots of trees, both in the streets and parks
- creates an environment of convenience and connection
- is dense enough, but not too dense.
How dense do we need to be?
The irony of “dense” urban living is that it isn’t actually advocating for skyscraper apartments where **”pedestrians can walk in air-conditioned skywalks from skyscraper to skyscraper.” That’s what happens when you let fabulous architects design an “ideal” city.
While connected skyscraper bridges can be convenient for people on the 45th floor of that skyscraper, they are largely showpieces and irrelevant for most of the population. They are the helipad of urban design.
An important thing to note is that, there is such a thing as too dense. The right density is roughly:
- 3-to-10 story buildings – Loosely speaking, this is the sweet spot where you can get the enough diversity to take advantage of the economies of scale, create vibrant neighbourhoods, and yet not detract from street life, city culture, and connection.
- Small blocks with thin storefronts – You need enough density so that you can create vibrant streetscapes with many store on a single small (relatively) block.
- Enough to support a decent subway – Having enough density to support a subway is great. It means you’re not restricted by land space and don’t divide your city up with road and rail arteries. While there is no exact number needed, you’re looking in the ballpark of 10000 people/km², but can do it with a lot less.
- Build up around transit – The key to density is good transit. We’ll go into detail about this later but ideally the area around your rail stations will build up in density to support the subway and convenient lifestyle.
The key to good density is variety. Mixed density is having a range of different height buildings that support different amounts of people. Skyscrapers are the high-end of the spectrum, and two-story buildings are the low end.
This mixed-density means:
- Greater diversity in rental prices since taller buildings cost more to construct, their rental prices must reflect that.
- Greater diversity in residence. The above point creates a greater diversity of income and ethnicity, which in turn creates richer cultures.
- Wider aesthetic variety, making it a more interesting street to walk down.
- Allow more sunshine to reach street level and parks. Walls of skyscrapers create cold, dark street environments that nobody want to walk on.
Cool, so that’s basically everything you need to know about density in a nutshell 🤯
With that being said, density is so interrelated with every other aspect of good urban living that you will be hearing a lot about it later.
Keep reading this series – Part 4: Getting in the Zone