The Compact City: A Sustainable Urban Form?

By Mike Jenks; Elizabeth Burton et al. | Go to book overview

Ernie Scoffham and Brenda Vale


How Compact is Sustainable-How Sustainable is Compact?

Introduction

…by-laws which place a limit on the number of houses to the acre, though beloved by the garden-suburb sentimentalists, are the most fatal to the true suburban spirit. It is an essential part of its character that the suburb should constitute a world in itself, susceptible of delimitation. Above all things it needs to be compact. Space as such is not an asset and a low density only dilutes the rich suburban landscape. (Richards, 1946, p. 77)

This apparent contradiction in concepts poses the question as to what is meant by compact. Does it mean that buildings, and with them the functions of urban life, should be close together; closer together than is now common? Does it mean, inter alia, an increase in density, so that more people and, one might expect, more urban functions are located within a given area? The question sharpens the distinction between density and intensity of development, for they are not the same thing. Density is a quantitative measure of number within a prescribed area, whereas intensity reflects a more subjective measure of built-up-ness or urbanity. Density, in itself, is of little importance unless it is related to built form. Compact is meaningless unless it is related to some facts and figures.

This century bears witness to a vast catalogue of attempts to arrive at a better understanding of the relationship between density and built form, especially in housing and especially in Britain. Some pernicious critics might describe these attempts as crimes and misdemeanours! Therefore, it seems necessary at the outset to place housing densities into some form of perspective against their respective built forms. Ebenezer Howard's 'garden city' reaction to the squalor and overcrowding of the nineteenth century meant 45 houses to the hectare, which at an average four bedspaces per house is 180 bedspaces per hectare (Howard, 1898). Raymond Unwin advised that there was Nothing Gained by Overcrowding and his 'town' density, enshrined in the Tudor-Walters report

-66-

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