The result of the UK’s Urban Task Force‘s endeavours was the much lauded, amongst built environment professionals and urban theorists, Towards and Urban Renaissance which was published in 1999 and despite the intervening 16 years it still has messages that are relevant to us today.
Its aim was to investigate how to accommodate a growing tide of housing without dismantling the rural-urban planning framework that the United Kingdom had built after WW2 (e.g. continued preservation of the green belts around the cities and towns of the UK). Out of this report a number of recommendations about future changes to urban planning were putforth with the ultimate goal of increasing densification within the existing boundaries of towns and cities.
Probably the strongest single statement to come from the work of the Urban Task Force is that of the chair Richard Rogers, world renown architect British, was that density can and should be interpreted as a spatial distribution of dwellings over a given surface-volume area. This leads to the conclusion that different housing typologies, with different urban qualities (or lack thereof), can accommodate the requirements for densification.
It is clear that the perimetre block option, bottom left of the sequence, offers the greatest variety of types of buildings, functions and a good balance between height and non built-up surface area. This leads to what well regarded urbanist Rob Adams from Melbourne, Australia, calls the ‘Barcelona model’.
This is because it offers an urban model that is very land efficient, it achieves very high densities with minimal land consumption, and still quite human in scale. Jan Gehl, another great urban guiding light, would consider that it is still an humanistic urban environment because people in most of these apartments are still connected to the ground plane / street and, therefore, still part of the life of the city.
In the end the strongest image to illustrate densities in different cities is that provided by the Venice Biennale from 2006, where you can see that Barcelona is has high as Shanghai in residential densities:
This speaks to the power of different urban housing typologies to distribute people over our cities. This is important to keep in mind because, with the exception of a few stagnating cities in developed countries, the majority of our world cities are still growing and will do so for the next few decades. It becomes then a question of how we want to accommodate this growth in a sustainable, equitable manner. Maybe the perimeter block is a good option, at least as good as the tower.