In this post I will talk about compact cities, what it means and whether it is a desirable goal regarding achieving sustainable development by using a case study from Dublin. In the literature compact cities tend to have many environmental benefits. The case study in Dublin will focus more on the social aspect of the sustainability term.

Due to the rapid growth of population, especially in the cities around the world, compact city has been a term that´s been more and more common in urban planning as a solution for sustainable development (Chen 2008:28). Even though rapid improvements in technology and transport have allowed people to live and work more distantly from each other, policy regulation, especially in the Western countries still advocate that a high density urban form is a better and more desirable sustainable development pattern (Howley 2009:792-793).

What characterises compact cities?
The most common definition of a compact city is;

To increase built area and residential population densities; to intensify urban economic, social and cultural activities and to manipulate urban size, form and structure and settlement systems in pursuit of the environmental, social and global sustainability benefits derived from the concentration of urban functions (Jenks and Burgess 2000:9-10).

The core element of the compact city is the mixed-use of land with high residential density (Foord 2010:47). This urban pattern have many beneficial effects. The compact urban form means less travel distance. This means people are less dependant by private car use and this encourage to a more pedestrian-oriented city and the use of public transport. Less private car use reduce the emissions which affects the global warming. If people are encouraged to walk and cycle more it encourages the community life and increases the surveillance of the streets which improves the public safety. Walking and cycling more also mean better health effects.

Other beneficial effects of compact development pattern is the protection and preservation of green fields and the plough land. Due to the growing population many cities try to avoid urban sprawl which would occupy more land than compact living. Compact building also means less energy and material use especially when it comes to infrastructure such a roads and sewer (Chen 2008:29).

The disadvantages are often social related. Overcrowding is mentioned as one and can have the reverse effect, as in decentralization. Overcrowding can lead to more crime, traffic congestion, pollution, noise, bad neighbourhood effect and rubbish (Chen 2008:29).

Clerkenwell is one example. Foord described the compact city as unsustainable due to the trade-offs people had to do by living there (Foord 2010:47). Rather than being engaged with the neighbourhood most people only tolerated their housing situation. They traded off all these disadvantages, learned to accept them, in order to live in the high density central area (Foord 2010:56). But this situation may become socially unsustainable (Foord 2010:60).

Compact cities also exclude some groups in the society due to the lifestyle situation it brings.  Compact patterns and high building may discourage the community life and the daily connection between people living in the neighbourhood, especially the young children and the elderly (Chen 2008:29). Studies show that families with children and elderly often are underrepresented in mixed use areas (compact cities). Above all, it is the lack of family accommodation and facilities that causes this (Foord 2010:49).

Case study
A study was made to understand the residential attitudes and preferences regarding living in a high-density compact neighbourhood in Dublin.

Data indicated that the population increased with 36% in Dublin city between 1991-2002 which has resulted in a demographic change. For example residents between 20-29 more than doubled. Meanwhile, households containing with children decreased from 21,4% to 12,7%.The households mostly consist of a single person living alone, non family households or a couple without children. The survey showed that 77,3% of the respondents are likely or very unlikely that they will move within five years (Howley 2009:795). Another study in Manchester also reported that 39% of those living in the city were between 20-29 (Howley 2009:794).

The study concluded that those who mainly choose live in the city are young and those who are single and that the high density city doesn’t fit all. It only tend to be a suitable place in a certain stage of a person´s life cycle, when he/she is young and career focused. Due to the lack of household size in the city and the will of a better and more suitable environment to raise the children the family life cycle stage seems to be main reason behind residential mobility (Howley 2009:793).

This study proved that people are more willing to live in a city in a short certain stage of their life cycle and that the majority of the existing residents prefer to live in lower density areas (Howley 2009:792). If people seem to only appreciate the compact city a short period in their life why should we then try to strive to make everything compact?

What we learned is that urban planners must be able to make the high density living attractive to all people throughout their different life cycles if we want compact cities to be a desirable goal (Howley 2009:793). Still, despite conflicting views the Commission of the European Communities advocates that the key objective regarding urban policy in EU is a compact townscape (Foord 2010:48).

Tobias Engelin Edvinsson

Chen, H., Jia, B., Lau, S.S.Y. (2008), ‘Sustainable urban form for Chinese compact cities: Challenges of a rapid urbanized economy, Habitat International, Vol. 32, pp. 28–40

Foord, J. (2010). Mixed-use trade-offs: How to live and work in ‘Compact-city’ neighbourhood. Built Environment 36, 47-62.

Howley, P. (2009). Attitudes towards compact city living: Towards a greater understanding of residential behaviour. Land Use Policy 26, 792-798.

Jenks, M., Burgess, R. (2000), Compact Cities: Sustainable Urban Forms for Developing Countries. London, Spoon Press.

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