On Density, Desirability, and Happiness


High density is often praised in relationship to sustainability because of the efficiencies in managing resources and benefits regarding shared transportation. Economists have also concluded that workers in denser places earn higher wages and are more productive. Studies show that doubling the density increases productivity by 6% or more. And there is an interesting 25% correlation between population density and gross metropolitan product per capita. (1) (2)

However, density is not a magic elixir. Many developing cities are struggling with overcrowding, traffic congestion, providing adequate infrastructure for water access and sanitation. In the case of Dharavi, we were looking at a slum redevelopment that would result in a population density of about 313,900 ppl/km2. The final image visualizing the massing of the proposed design, based on the 7 story’s maximum height policy, offered a terrifying view of the future – not that different from the Soviet housing projects developed during the 60s, many of which are now abandoned or soon to be demolished.

So, I wanted to explore if there is such thing as an “ideal” density. In other words, is there a correlation between the density and the perceived desirability of the city? How does it change with economical and growth differences?

If we look at the rankings of the “most livable cities” (3) and their density we can observe the following correlation:

Roure density

Cities that systematically appear on the rankings of “livability” are: Zurich, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Vienna, Munich, Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, Paris… In this study I included the 20 most acclaimed cities amongst the 3 most important rankings: Monocle, Mercer, and EIU. The average density of these 20 cities is of 3800 ppl/km2 and the deviation can be disregarded.

Although there is much debate about the criteria behind these reports, they have to do with very high ratings on safety/crime, quality of architecture, public transportation, urban design, business conditions, environmental issues and pro-active policy developments.

On the other hand, all of the cities in this list are in stable, democratic countries, have gone through a diligent constant improvement over the last, not only decades, but also centuries, and stand today with some of the highest gross metropolitan product per capita of the world. These could be thought as the most desirable cities for the top 5% of the population.

The challenge arises when addressing emerging citites such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, New Delhi or Bogota (4), with densities from 3 to 10 times higher than the “ideal” 3800ppl/km2. Slums in these cities have a key socioeconomic role, they are often used as a gate for immigrants coming from rural areas to find a temporary settlement and to eventually be able to find a job and thus enter the formal market. The precarious living conditions, sanitation deficiencies and corrupted informal economies are a source of anxiety.

If we think back on the history of some of the chosen “most livable cities,” we find a recurrent pattern of explosion of growth with subsequent stabilization. Yet the scale of these new metropolis and building capabilities are unprecedented. Even if we can greatly learn from existing urban models, new challenges will need to be addressed – for which testing and a great degree of political will be needed.

(1) http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/13/why-humanity-loves-and-needs-cities/

(2) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/opinion/sunday/one-path-to-better-jobs-more-density-in-cities.html?pagewanted=all

(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World’s_most_livable_cities links to Monocle, Mercer and EIU

(4) http://www.atkearney.com/documents/10192/dfedfc4c-8a62-4162-90e5-2a3f14f0da3a  Global Cities Index and Emerging Cities Outlook


2 thoughts on “On Density, Desirability, and Happiness

  1. Pingback: On Density and Happiness 2 | Sustainable Cities: Urbanization, Infrastructure, and Finance

  2. MVP, I thought your analysis on the relationship between city density and happiness is very interesting. As you mention, denser means a more efficient use of resources and greater sustainability, which we tend to associate with improved quality of life. The best “dense” cities you found seem to be integrated ones with mixed use properties, and a good transportation system.

    For some reason, this reminded me of the studies that show how a long commute is the number one issue that negatively affects a person’s well-being (http://www.quora.com/What-studies-have-been-done-on-the-effect-of-commuting-on-happiness). At first, I thought that living in denser cities allowed for shorter commute times, but upon further reflection, I realized that the opposite could also be true as people just lived and worked on opposite sides of a city. Therefore, the spread of the city may also factor into the happiness equation, with the smaller denser cities being the happiest. However a good transportation system minimizes the impact of city size on the happiness regression.

    It would be very interesting to see what happens as these emerging market cities develop and whether they can achieve that optimal density balance.

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