Growing populations, rapid urbanization and limited available land in the world’s big cities invariably means packing more people into what is already a tight space.

The process of densification strikes fear into the hearts of those who lived in the 1960s. Over-crowding, high crime, and loss of privacy may seem like the unavoidable consequences of densification, but the modern movement for densification is not so harsh. Primary concerns are a lack of infrastructure and public housing – as well as changing the landscape with boring cookie-cutter industrial buildings. However, with populations growing cities are taking the initiative to properly plan for the inevitable challenge.

In order to rethink density, and consider the environment and society, our cities need to become more flexible. There is no perfect plan out there that would solve the world’s growing density problem, but there are many people in place attempting to solve issues one step at a time.

How to adjust to growing density

Developments in cities across the U.S. will rise differently, adapting to the character of each city itself. So density doesn’t have to mean an influx of high rise buildings. Good urban planning for density uses mixed-use land, with variability for work, play and comfort. Reliable transportation in central areas that are in walking distance or easily access education, healthcare, and other amenities.

Densification can also be good for the environment by promoting the use of public transport, providing opportunities for shared energy technology and using existing infrastructure while also offering an alternative to greenfield development.

Within cities, high-density areas can be created on brownfield sites and transport interchanges, and by converting shops/offices. One major issue with density is the possibility that established residential areas will also face big changes in coming years – and these can bring disadvantages such as congestion, overcrowding and a loss of open space. For developers and property owners, it can mean higher construction costs and more complex planning processes as local governments tend to prioritize short-term planning over the need to accommodate growing urban populations in the future.

Changing mindsets towards density

Cities do not have a choice of whether or not to adapt to growing density. However, the cities that adopt good density preparation and planning will likely make the next generation of thriving cities.

As the new normal moves towards environmentally focused high-density developments, and away from automobile centered sprawl, conversion of city transportation will prove to be a big struggle for many. Because many of the cities in the U.S. rely so heavily on private transportation, urban sprawl is a large issue. But it is one that is possible to remedy. For example, Perth has transformed itself from an ‘automobile city’ to a city with numerous centers of high-density living, supported by light rail.

Density makes economic, social and environmental sense, and will provide a competitive advantage for people and firms in the future. But, delivering successful densification is not a simple task, and is one of the most important topics of this urban decade.

How then do we plan for density? Investing in skills for better urban planning and advocacy to help take the density debate forwards are key. It will require more evaluation of city densities across the world, training for urban planners so they become bolder in creating developments for high-density living, and the potential development of a global density benchmark.

City leaders also need support to learn how to promote density as a means to achieve public goals in the longer-term. But perhaps the hardest challenge is shifting negative public attitudes, and showing that density doesn’t require loss of personal space and aesthetically pleasing atmospheres.

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