People around the quay in Lindholmen
​Lindholmen quay in central Gothenburg. Photo: Johan Bodell

Negative effects of densification are overlooked in urban planning

​By 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities, hence, the need for developing sustainable and resilient cities is urgent. Densification is a generally accepted strategy in urban planning – but a recent overview of city plans and science in the field show good reasons neither to forget the negative side effects, nor the need for new research questions.
A current prevailing view in city planning in Sweden as well as internationally, is that densification is a natural part of developing sustainable cities. This consensus lead Meta Berghauser Pont, associate professor at the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, and fellow researchers, to question and investigate the strategy further.   

  – There actually is a mismatch between what science has concluded and what practice use as an argument. We have systematically investigated both the scientific evidence and arguments used and conclude there are good reasons to be more critical about simple solutions in the form of densification and instead seek proof and knowledge of both pros and cons.    

The researchers have made a systematic overview of comprehensive plans from 59 Swedish municipalities and studied to what extent a motive for densification is mentioned, positive or negative, and to which field that motive connects to. In order to relate this to what science says, the researchers have studied scientific articles on densification and, again, noted to which research fields those studies connect to – and if the correlation to densification was positive or negative. The results will be presented at Beyond2020 conference, Nov 2nd.

Knowledge gaps behind over-reliance on densification strategy   

What they have shown is that practice think that densification mostly has positive effects in relation to sustainable urban development and, moreover, a discrepancy in terms of what research results actually show.     
  – The most interesting results of the overview of plans is that most of the arguments are positive and very pro densification. One of few aspects that really is acknowledged as a problem is water management. When social effects are mentioned it is in a positive manner, like better social cohesion that, in turn, contributes to integration. However, in the scientific papers, especially the social aspect of effects of densification is shown to be more negative.    
Meta explains that the review furthermore has revealed that many negative health effects are highlighted in research, like stress and health problems related to air pollution.    
  – A clear mismatch between what science has concluded and what practice use as an argument, a real knowledge gap, Meta Berghauser Pont comments.   

Sustainable cities demand for complex solutions   

Research has shown many of the negative sides of densification have to do with soft values such as social issues or health topics, while the positive sides of densification relate to economics or transport related topics. To acknowledge and handle both negative and positive sides in the design process would mean making the design task more complex.   
  – The tendence, historically, is to take one problem and solve it. A hundred years ago when cities were overcrowded, we aimed at building more spacious, green cities where access to daylight in apartments was put high on the agenda. What was overlooked then was the need for good housing is not enough; we also need good cities.     
For the latter, the understanding of the movement patterns of people is crucial where well-connected places create other urban qualities than less well-connected places, Meta Berghauser Pont explains. She continues:   
  – This was just not part of the design problem at the time with the resulting spatial segregation we see today in many areas built during the Swedish Million Home Programme. I think we do the same thing with densification at the moment – we simplify the set of problems and focus on a few issues, without acknowledging the full spectrum, for instance design areas that are both dense and green.   

Adaption and resilience the way forward   

Meta think both practice and researchers need to change their way of thinking.    
  – Instead of wanting a city that resolves problems of today we should strive for a city that is resilient to forthcoming changes and problems.   
Meta says research results suggest cities should be adaptable and allow for diversity and changes – which is a much harder concept to work with. Harder, but not impossible. Meta continues by exemplifying how the complex task can be handled.   
  – A few things can be done; to start with, practice need to acknowledge also the negative sides of for instance densification. This opens up for new more complex challenges and often requires more innovative solutions and building types and urban forms that we do not know yet.     
Meta Berghauser Pont and her research group suggest working on the concept of social ecological urbanism, which tries to capture a new way of looking at cities, as an alternative to smart growth and densification.   

Imbalance in topics addressed in research   

The researchers have also seen that there is an imbalance in regards of what research fields densification research has been focusing on. Innumerable transport related research studies are performed, and they often show positive correlations, such as less private car traffic since inhabitants can walk or use public transport. Meta thinks climate change discussion, by right, has put a lot of attention on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, the transport related field, one of the large sources of such emissions, has gained a lot of money and thus a lot of papers are published in that direction.    
  – We have arrived at the point where we know this mechanism plays out, while studies connected to ecology, social impact and health are much less studied and show also partly negative correlations with higher density, she declares.     
Meta Berghauser Pont concludes:   
  – We need to show the research community that we have a huge imbalance in the topics we address. This is a serious problem that individual researchers but especially funders should take notice of. We need more research in other directions, instead of repeating the same thing again and again and again.     


Meta Berghauser Pont is Associate Professor in Urban Design and Planning, at the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology. She will together with Per Haupt present their papers:
A systematic review of motives for densification in Swedish planning practice”, and
A systematic review of the scientifically demonstrated effects of densification” on the 2 November, the first conference day of the international digital Beyond2020 conference.   
All about the Beyond2020 conference: 
Text: Catharina BJörk

Page manager Published: Wed 28 Oct 2020.