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Re-defining the British city: a European perspective

Vassil Pavlov \ 28th Nov 2023

Our urban planning approach must pay greater attention to the intrinsic relationship between built form, sustainable mobility and social welfare, and their collective role in fuelling an intellectually stimulated society.

Whether reflected in self-inflicted housing shortages, affordability crises or environmental concerns, our current housing model is flawed.

Does the answer, and therefore opportunity, lie in urban form?

The art of urban form

Comparing UK and European cityscapes reveals two key differences in support of critical mass: cities on the continent have more extensive mass transit networks and higher urban density.

Both of these points are inter-linked and the result of better planning and development.

Thriving mid-rise neighbourhoods are ubiquitous, developed around well-defined public transport corridors, often in the form of tree-lined boulevards, and festooned with a selection of ground floor street-facing amenities.

In the UK, our small and increasingly saturated city centres diffuse rapidly into sprawling low-density housing estates, two-storey buildings and car-centric infrastructure.

An indictment of our planning system, this urban form is egregiously expensive and has amplified carbon emissions, reduced economic productivity, segregated communities and heightened pressure on public services.

In short, it’s making our cities less healthy, less wealthy and less equitable.

Economic productivity

Studies have shown that UK cities underperform compared to their European counterparts, which costs the UK economy billions every year.

Their inferior ‘effective size’ is due to lower public transport accessibility, which can be attributed to the lower density, and results in a reduced labour market and diminished agglomeration effects.

Our cities are only ‘big’ on paper, they don’t get denser with size and a lack of connectivity inhibits their economic performance.

The low-density sprawl reduces the demand, patronage and viability of mass transit schemes, requiring more investment and expansion to achieve similar levels of permeability.

The development trap

The concept of induced demand posits that building more roads eventually leads to more congestion.

Yet, we’ve failed to appreciate the paradox and the ‘development trap’ has made new road infrastructure essential for an insatiable sprawl of low-density communities.

The systemic issues Britain faces are a consequence of the reaction to its previous post-WWII housing crisis. While Europe embraced higher density apartment building and invested in rapid transit systems, we favoured suburbanisation and heavy road construction.

Will we learn from history or further perpetuate this myopic and parochial charge?

Time for planning reform

Is our planning system to blame?

Zonal systems in European cities foster higher density mid-rise urban form, with minimum density targets mandated for areas surrounding transit stops.

In contrast, the UK’s discretionary system invites objections to individual applications rather than constructive engagement at the initial policy formulation stages.

This is evident in our regional cities, where brownfield land in central locations has been underdeveloped for decades. Conversely, there’s an endless supply of new cul-de-sac housing.

Cities like Manchester have been redressing this in recent years, but it’s still behind the curve. Reversing decades of socioeconomic damage demands an aggressive counter-policy.

High density doesn’t have to mean high-rise

Building higher density inner city neighbourhoods close to transport hubs would leverage existing resources, improve accessibility, limit carbon emissions, reduce car reliance, address our housing shortage and help grow productivity to internationally competitive levels by increasing the size of our cities.

You only need to look at the skyline to appreciate the progress of Manchester and Salford in recent years, with thousands of new apartments delivered, creating vibrant urban communities. Let the evolution continue.

However, the shift doesn’t have to be as drastic as the juxtaposition of 60-storey towers flanking one side of the Mancunian Way and two-storey houses the other. Small adjustments, such as adopting mid-rise (4–8 storey) apartment blocks seen across Europe, could be just as effective.

By giving more consideration to green spaces, urban retreats and school provision at the masterplanning stage within a reformed planning framework, we’d attract more families and achieve less superficial city centres.

Let’s talk about vertical expansion

While it would be easy to lay sole blame on our planning system, it’s only part of the problem. Behind policy lie societal misconceptions and deep-seated aversions to densification.

How beholden are we to the pursuit of suburban happiness? Can we afford to sweep our apartment living antipathy under the carpet and espouse the misconception that they’re transient dwellings for students and young professionals?

Instead, let’s take inspiration from the more egalitarian urban planning principles that have shaped the great continental cities, where city centres have a more balanced intergenerational populace. It transforms them into community-focused places for people to live, start a family and grow old.

For this to happen, apartments need to become aspirational places for everyone. Most European apartments feature spacious rooms, high ceilings, solid walls, dual-aspect windows, sizeable balconies, private communal gardens and excellent views, which make them attractive to families.

Sustainable public transport

The symbiotic relationship between higher density and better accessibility must be recognised and supported by our planning system.

Granted, there’s a vision for a ‘London-style’ public transport network in Greater Manchester. However, to be truly effective, a London-style system requires London-style density.

Greater density ensures more efficient use of land and resources and increases demand and viability of transit systems, marginalising malicious NIMBYism in the process.

The UK is one of the most densely-populated countries in Europe (and more so than China), yet has one of the lowest density housing models.

With just 20% of our populace living in apartments, the UK sits behind only Ireland and Norway.

We need to overhaul our planning system to drive profound urban change and create more effective cities, rather than another heuristic approach.

This article originally featured in Place North West Insights in October 2023. Photos via Shutterstock.