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A Magazine for Sheffield

Should we be densifying our cities?

Urban populations are due to double by 2050. We look at how densifying urban areas can help reduce emissions and promote economic growth. 

An aerial view of a city with lots of houses.

Sunset over Greystones in Sheffield

Benjamin Elliott

Surrounded by skyscrapers and enormous buildings, there really is nowhere quite like London.

Of course, that’s not to say the UK doesn’t host many other exciting, vibrant, and unique cities to explore. However if we are thinking in terms of density, no other British city can truly match the capital with a population of 11 million in comparison to Manchester, the second largest city, with a population just under 3 million.

At Festival of Debate, Guilherme Rodrigues, Suyash Mankame and Dr Hadi Arbabi spoke at Urban densification: Is this the future of our cities? about the benefits that densification could have on the future of our cities.

When areas increase in density, there is an added shot of prosperity as more job and business opportunities become available, whilst levels of harmful emissions are reduced.

According to Centre for Cities:

The 63 largest cities and towns in the UK generate 45 per cent of all emissions, with London accounting for 10 per cent

But cities and large towns are home to 54 per cent of the population, so emissions per capita are much lower than in more rural areas, and the average Londoner produces less carbon than someone living outside a city or large town.

Some of this has to do with transport emissions, as people living in a city centre are less likely to use a private vehicle when they have an efficient public transport network.

Guilherme Rodrigues, an analyst for Centre for Cities said:

Connectivity is very important at an individual level, and a city and national level, connecting people to their jobs, services, friends, activities.

Currently, with the exception of London, British cities - in terms of poly transport activity - underperform with similar size cities in the continent.

Rodrigues gave an example of the lack of transport in our cities with the example of Sheffield and similar-sized French city, Lille.

  • Sheffield:
    • Population within 30 minutes of the city centre: 137,000 (16%)
    • Public transport network across city in 30 minutes: 25 square km
  • Lille:
    • Population within 30mins of city centre: 442,000 (45%)
    • Public transport network across city in 30 minutes: 74 square km
Aerial photography of houses.

Sheffield skyline looking over Upperthorpe

Benjamin Elliott

We can see that despite Lille having over three times the population living in the city centre, you can travel three times further in the same amount of time than in Sheffield due to better public transport.

In part, this lack of transport is due to the increased number of residents living in detached housing outside the city.

Rodrigues added:

The UK only have 10% of their population living in dense environments.

We should prioritise more infrastructure like trams and metros and densify those surrounding areas and make better connections with the infrastructure already there in city centres.

Not only is a lack of density holding us back from hitting our net-zero target, it is also driving city-centre housing prices up, adding to high emissions in surrounding city areas.

Suyash Mankame, a principal architect said:

The jobs in the city centre mean that people still must commute so that is something that is affecting accessibility in terms of transport.

This kind of development also has led to the displacement of citizens who cannot afford to live in city centres due to rise in rent and properties which leads to social and economic inequalities.

With a shortage of housing, we are already facing a housing crisis; statistics from the Bank of England say ‘house prices are now around three times as expensive as they were in the late 1970s.’

Rising house and rent costs, paired with a rising population, means something will have to give.

Dr Hadi Arbabi, a lecturer from the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering at the University of Sheffield, said:

We are looking at a tripling of the built-up areas we currently have and a doubling of urban population that we expect by 2050.

Dr Arbabi went on to discuss the importance of looking at both how cities function in terms of planning and how the economy of big cities defines the prosperity of the nations they belong to as well as themselves, plus why we can expect cities to be faster, richer and more efficient in the future.

From what I gathered, urban densification is a win that, as a nation, all of us will benefit from.

The government’s Levelling Up paper states:

It is critical that we improve productivity, boost economic growth, encourage innovation, create good jobs, enhance educational attainment and renovate the social and cultural fabric of those parts of the UK that have stalled and not – so far – shared equally in our nation’s success.

Helping cities prosper and generate more income, easing the housing crisis and getting the UK on track to hit net zero is why we need to be pushing for levelling up with a focus on densification.

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