Density

paris - boulevards

Density is one of the most pressing issues for architecture in New Zealand’s cities. Auckland is renowned, or perhaps infamous, for its low density. Compared to cities of similar population:

Auckland (1.3 million inhabitants), 1 209 per square kilometer

Turin (0.9 million inhabitants), 6 994 per square kilometer

Fukuoka (1.4 million inhabitants), 4 061 per square kilometer

For reference:

Mumbai (13.6 million inhabitants), 21 880 per square kilometer

Density is necessary. Density will occur. Densification is not something we are free to weigh up, accept or reject. Population growth and urban drift will produce higher density. More people must live in a smaller area. It is of course possible to refuse to acknowledge this, but if New Zealand were to continue to develop without increasing density in its cities, it would be unique in the world, and it would rapidly consume what most New Zealanders would agree it it’s most precious resource: its land, air, waters, flora, and fauna.

New Zealanders, it is often asserted, require space and openness, and are therefore unlikely, or some might say, unable to live in a dense city. But openness is not opposed to density. On the contrary, it is density that permits openness. Density preserves or sustains openness. Is it possible to imagine a less open condition than that represented by the suburbs of Botany Downs, parcelled up by fences and split by six-lane roads?

Many people feel that density comes down to importing foreign models. The primary architectural type in NZ is the detached house, while in other architectural traditions, collective housing is a well-developed type. It is also true that there are some very poor instances of densification in Auckland. Density has been hijacked by developers for whom it is simply a way to maximise profit. The virtues and benefits of density are undermined by this. The message cannot be “well folks, density is real, so here’s your shoebox, suck it up soldier”. There are very real architectural problems to be solved in order for density to work. Where can I dry my clothes, have a bbq, play cricket, work on the Holden? Architects don’t design objects, they design lives: movements, sensory experiences, social relationships, backgrounds, paths, cases, patterns of activity. People need to convinced of the benefits of density, and assured that life can actually continue in, or be enhanced by, a denser setting.

Perhaps one of the problems is that we lack appealing models for density. Block diagrams comparing density can only take us so far, and could be accused of engendering the very sterility they claim to expose. Instead of telling people off for wasteful living, architects need to be proactive in demonstrating the positive attributes of densification. We cannot herd people into a denser city. We need to produce a desire for density.

[ cross-posted to aaa.org.nz ]

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