A street in the dense 9th arrondissement of Paris, France

In our era, the obligation of increasing the density of urban fabrics consistently comes into play in development projects. This question became unavoidable as land use increased. And so, today the majority of urban operations are concerned with areas already built upon. Density is also an important economic issue: in opposition to urban sprawl it can lead to saving important resources, especially electricity, sanitation, water, and roadways.

Citizens often consider urban density to be bad. However, an investigation by the Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme (APUR or the Paris Urban Planning Agency) shows that neighborhoods often perceived as “dense” are often less so than downtown neighborhoods whose quality of life is much lauded. The perception of density therefore varies markedly according to the urban fabric inhabited.

It is not so much human density (inhabitants per km2), nor density related to the amount of built surface area (floor area ratio) which seem to pose problems, but rather urban quality. This category can be defined through two notions.

  • Firstly, through the concept of functional diversity: this stipulates that a place must respond to the different needs of locals such as food and drink, getting around, having fun, living, leisurely walking around, or even studying.
  • Secondly, through the concept of urban integration: this means that the quality of a neighborhood is expressed just as much by its diversity (plurality of functions, environments, and social forms) as by its coherence. The quality of integration of a place, building, or development project within an urban context depends on a skillful balance between functional, social, and architectural diversity and unity.

The APUR’s investigation focuses on the perception of density through two different comparisons of Parisian neighborhoods both possessing markedly different urban fabrics. The first comparison contrasts the Rochechouart area in the 9th arrondissement (with Haussmannian buildings) with the Falguière area in the 15th arrondissement (urbanism of the 1960s). It is important to highlight that the socio-professional profiles of the two neighborhoods are roughly the same, being home to executives and high-level professionals. We can observe that the residents questioned the perceived density of their location differently according to precise criteria of urban quality such as building height, architectural coherence, the number of apartments in a building, the diversity of functions offered close by, presence of green spaces, and gathering places.A street and buildings in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, France

It becomes apparent that people living in tower blocks such as in the 15th arrondissement consider “the height of the buildings [...] oppressing” and think that their neighborhood is much too dense. Yet, the floor area ratio and the rate of visits of this urban area are both very low in relation to the other neighborhoods studied. On the contrary, residents from an urban fabric which is continuous and coherent, on the architectural level, appreciate the well-being of such a neighborhoods, while not detecting its high density. Perceived density changes according to different factors. It tends to increase when buildings have a large number of units, and it tends to decrease when there is a strong presence of nearby facilities and services such as businesses, leisure activities, and culture.

This study, even if it is limited to the analysis of three types of urban fabric (continuous buildings, “towers and low-rises,” and suburbs) proves nevertheless that true density is clearly removed from experienced density. This latter form of density depends on the urban quality offered in a neighborhood: activities in public spaces, a diversity of functions and populations as well as spatial, architectural, and even functional coherence.

If making an area more dense is indispensable from an economic (saving resources) or spatial (saving space) point of view, it is necessary to ensure that it is taken well. In order for this to happen, it is necessary to build a city which is coherent from three points of view: functionally coherent (diversity of locations), spatially coherent (multimodal roadways, centrality and unity of public spaces), and architecturally coherent (buildings on a human scale, of the same height, and taking into account local specificities).

In the end, maybe density will no longer be linked with annoyances, difficulties, and animosities!

Which changes could be easily implemented to lessen the negative effects of living in a high density area?

Original article, originally published in French, here.

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.