Urban Density versus Urban Dispersion

As the centuries-old tale goes, Dick Whittington (and his cat) took to London in search of opportunity. He had heard the city’s streets were paved with gold. What he found upon arriving was instead a grimy, poverty-stricken place. This aspect of the story would still be applicable to many cities of the world today.

Cities are main centers of consumption, resource use, congestion, and waste. In the foreword, we called out a number of the pains that confront us daily — over-crowding, higher costs of living, slums, criminality, pollution, and unreasonably-long daily commutes to work. Other effects, suggested by future-watchers Shell Scenarios, are less direct or evident such as the deterioration in health due to lack of sleep, waste, polluted air and water, and strains in city infrastructure, governance and finance.

There is an understandable impulse for urban planners to escape these ills by dispersing development outward. For example, Malaysia moved its political center almost an hour-drive away to Putrajaya, leap-frogging many thinly populated areas just outside Kuala Lumpur. Despite the seeming benefits of development in unbuilt and low-density areas, where there is more wiggle room to plan and construct, “the sprawl” actually causes other problems. There would be increased pressure on infrastructure efficiency (water, road, rail, power); a greater reliance on automobiles and the resulting higher fuel consumption, carbon footprint, and number of car crashes; the wider built-up footprint over forest, green lung or agricultural land.

It may seem counter-intuitive but the density that causes our urban pains is the very factor that facilitates productivity and economic growth. It is density that makes possible lower poverty incidence. Greater Manila, which hosts 25% of the country’s population, contributes about 40% of the entire country’s GDP. (Per capita income in the capital is already over USD 8,000, while the country’s average is only approaching the USD 3,000 threshhold.)

Density is that special factor because the high concentration and close proximity of people and industries allows easier access to other people, goods and ideas. This attracts job-seekers to relocate in droves to seek employment and gain better access to education, healthcare and over-all quality of life.

In many cases, density can make possible a “creative combustion” from the mixing of knowledge workers, their perspectives, opportunities and ideas that in turn bring life, entrepreneurial vigor and an innovative verve to urban communities.

It might not immediately look it, but London’s (and Manila’s and Delhi’s) streets could indeed be paved with gold. There is urban density enough to enable increased productivity and to create new opportunities and new value.



Some of the road network in sprawling Los Angeles. Dispersed, low-rise, low-density urban developments such as LA’s require higher infrastructure spending per capita on roads, rail, water and power distribution, and higher dependency on cars and fossil fuels to get around.



Future Cities