Density and Chaos: British Cities
Katherine Mumford and Anne Power

Introduction For decades, town and urban planning authorities have misunderstood the relationship between space and society. In order to address inner city poverty, cities were sent sprawling into the suburbs. This only served to create a sense of emptiness and a deeper sense of insecurity. Anne Power and Katharine Mumford were commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to investigate urban renaissance and urban abandonment. In this story, they report on the merits of high-density living. While density may convey the illusion of chaos, it bestows the benefits of social and spatial stability.

Misunderstanding Space

In British urban history, we confused the poverty and chaos of early urban growth with high density. In order to address poor conditions, we drove our cities outwards. In the mass housing era, we built high-rise blocks in an attempt to reduce overcrowding, create more open space, and cope with greenbelt restrictions and objections to council housing in more conservative suburbs. By concentrating poverty within council estates, we combined high rise and high need. This, coupled with lack of adequate caretaking or guarding, led to rapid decay.

In practice, high quality is often associated with high density. Old crowded neighbourhoods in Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid and Edinburgh are sought after and successful. Population density in Barcelona's inner neighbourhoods is at least ten times higher than in British inner cities. Georgian terraces in inner London, Glasgow and Amsterdam are very high density.

High-density, high life

Higher density is making a comeback. When control over entrances is combined with careful allocations, tower blocks prove popular, secure and relatively easy to regenerate. This is drawing public attention.

Smaller households and city exodus mean that fewer people occupy urban space. It is therefore possible to increase the number of households living in cities without crowding people. Smaller households can be more compactly fitted in to generate sufficient street life and support services for new housing to really work.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's innovative proposals for high-density, high-quality rented accommodation in central Leeds and Birmingham point to new thinking on densities, single person housing, super-caretaking and city living. The Peabody Trust, historically associated with high density and intensive secure management, is pioneering new schemes following this model.

A secret of success in creating mixed urban communities is higher density. Social housing can be built into new development invisibly if we copy the Dutch example of quality design and finish. These new styles rely on choice rather than coercion.

High density supports services, street life and interchange. Low density encourages the opposite, a sense of emptiness, a lack of informal controls, an inadequate resource base for essential services and a deep sense of insecurity. Low income makes all these things much worse. Having sufficient people to support shops, to fund custodial caretaking, to use public transport creates informal supervision through street activity. But a combination of neighbourhood management measures is necessary to make density work. The continental model of urban maintenance is far stronger and more effective than British models partly as a result of higher density. It applies in owner-occupied as well as rented areas.

The new core city private developments in Manchester and Newcastle are similarly high density, well serviced, environmentally attractive and in strong demand. Now is the time to change planning guidelines as a way of enhancing the urban environment, expanding the number of people we can house in cities and reintroducing front-line supervision.

Our changing society

Eighty-five per cent of all additional households over the next 20 years are projected to be single people. Fifty per cent of them may need affordable housing. Households are breaking up and reforming in many new ways. This generates some of the projected smaller households, although the elderly form a large proportion of them. But family break-up also creates reconstituted households, pulling many people who become single into new partnerships and cutting back the rate of household growth. This is one explanation offered in Manchester and Newcastle for lower housing demand, less new household formation and higher turnover than expected. It is important, therefore, not to rely too heavily on projections but to look at hard evidence of local demand and need more directly.

Many more single elderly people will require housing within reach of main services in the future. Cities and towns will play a big role. Inventing new housing ideas to help single people feel less isolated and closer to support is critical to social cohesion. Ensuring family-friendly cities is, too.

New factors can influence behaviour. For example, commuting becomes less popular as traffic congestion grows. Some working mothers are opting in favour of cities to avoid long-distance commuting and loss of child contact. City centres become more attractive to some childless households as they become more numerous; resistance to building in the countryside grows as more green fields disappear; rebuilding inner neighbourhoods becomes more attractive to the private sector under positive urban management. Household behaviour is already responding to some of these signals, as John Prescott's own response to environmental pressures illustrates.

Shrinking household size makes many of the houses and flats we saw standing empty potentially attractive to new households as long as overall environmental security, back-up services and neighbourhood management are provided.

Policing our cities

To win popular support for a return to cities in the face of deep insecurity and long-run decay, more is required than marketing, regeneration and a change in attitude. A prerequisite is a new approach to policing.

One of the reasons for behavioural breakdown is the unequal policing of areas. Weak enforcement highlights this. Over decades, the police increasingly withdrew into patrol cars and central offices. On the other hand, the police are expected to broker the ills of society without clear rules. In a democracy we want it both ways--freedom to choose how we live and freedom from the consequences.

Gradually, it is becoming clear that many levels of control by many agencies make for more peaceful communities. Strict enforcement, clear visibility on the streets, constant links with parents, co-operation with other authority figures, a swift response from local organisational bases and immediate action over small transgressions can stem a rising tide of more serious crime. These measures help to create a climate of confidence and security that reinforces people's willingness to step in.

Crucially, positive or proactive policing encourages positive community behaviour. Many liberals dislike the notion of intensive policing. But, in cities of strangers--which is the essential nature of modern city neighbourhoods--the brokering of law and order by recognised authority figures is a prerequisite for community safety and stability.

Policing difficult neighbourhoods carries many risks and requires skill, continuity and consistency. Young people, particularly young men, react with hostility and aggression to police intervention after they have been allowed to develop law-breaking habits. However, they tend to respect clear rules that allow them the right to be out and about within the bounds of civic responsibility. This is where crowded streets, mixed uses, high density and strong policing can work together. They give youths the right to roam and gather as they have always done, without threatening community safety.

There are many models of security, guarding, policing and community safety that work. Often, they apply to small areas for a limited time period. It is a question of applying widely and continually across city neighbourhoods what is known to work. The resources currently spent on crime-chasing and paper-pushing must be converted into crime prevention through street policing.

Many US cities have cut their violent crime by adopting a visible street presence and action against "incivilities." Our much smaller crime problems are certainly more manageable. Making urban dwellers feel comfortable and not alone is an absolute key to regeneration.


This is an edited extract from The Slow Death of Great Cities? Urban Abandonment and Urban Renaissance, by Anne Power and Katharine Mumford, Joseph Rowntree Foundation by YPS, 1999.