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Compact city

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Subject: Smart growth, New Urbanism, Freeway removal, Automotive city, George Dantzig
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Compact city

The compact city or city of short distances is an urban planning and urban design concept, which promotes relatively high residential density with mixed land uses. It is based on an efficient public transport system and has an urban layout which – according to its advocates – encourages walking and cycling, low energy consumption and reduced pollution. A large resident population provides opportunities for social interaction as well as a feeling of safety in numbers and 'eyes on the street'.[1] It is also arguably a more sustainable urban settlement type than urban sprawl because it is less dependent on the car, requiring less (and cheaper per capita) infrastructure provision (Williams 2000, cited in Dempsey 2010).[2]

Achieving a positive compact city does not just mean increasing urban density per se or across all parts of the city. It means good planning to achieve an overall more compact urban form:


The term Compact City was first coined in 1973 by Thomas L. Saaty,[4] two mathematicians whose utopian vision was largely driven by a desire to see more efficient use of resources. The concept, as it has influenced urban planning, is often attributed to Jane Jacobs and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961),[1] a critique of modernist planning policies claimed by Jacobs to be destroying many existing inner-city communities.

Among other criticisms of the conventional planning and transport planning of the time, Jacobs' work attacked the tendency, inherited from the Garden City Movement, towards reducing the density of dwellings in urban areas. Four conditions were necessary to enable the diversity essential for urban renewal: mixed uses, small walkable blocks, mingling of building ages and types, and "a sufficiently dense concentration of people". The 'sufficient' density would vary according to local circumstances but, in general, a hundred dwellings per acre (247 per hectare – high by American standards, but quite common in European and Asian cities) could be considered a minimum.

The Compact City and Related Concepts

Although the concept of 'compact city' was coined by American writers, it has been used more in recent years by European and particularly British planners and academics. See, for example, the writings of Michael Jenks.[5]

In North America the term 'smart growth' has become increasingly common linked to the concept of 'smart city'. The concept of 'smart growth' is very similar to 'compact city', although 'smart growth' carries more strongly normative connotations, implicitly accepting the emphasis in current mainstream debates that growth is necessary and good. The term is often used loosely to accommodate these debates[6]

Cognate concepts include 'sustainable urban development' with no presumption that development equals growth.[7]

Another alternative concept is 'green urbanism'. Steffen Lehmann has extensively written about the compact city and green urbanism. His work presents a series of international case studies and outlines 15 core principles for the design of compact, sustainable cities.[8]

The Compact City, urban sprawl and automobile dependency

Whether the Compact City (or 'smart growth') does or can reduce problems of automobile dependency associated with urban sprawl has been fiercely contested over several decades. An influential study in 1989 by Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy compared 32 cities across North America, Australia, Europe and Asia.[9] The study's methodology has been criticised[10] but the main finding that denser cities, particularly in Asia, have lower car use than sprawling cities, particularly in North America, has been largely accepted – although the relationship is clearer at the extremes across continents than it is within countries where conditions are more similar.

Within cities, studies from across many countries (mainly in the developed world) have shown that denser urban areas with greater mixture of land use and better public transport tend to have lower car use than less dense suburban and exurban residential areas. This usually holds true even after controlling for socio-economic factors such as differences in household composition and income.[11] This does not necessarily imply that suburban sprawl causes high car use, however. One confounding factor, which has been the subject of many studies, is residential self-selection:[12] people who prefer to drive tend to move towards low density suburbs, whereas people who prefer to walk, cycle or use transit tend to move towards higher density urban areas, better served by public transport. Some studies have found that, when self-selection is controlled for, the built environment has no significant effect on travel behaviour.[13] More recent studies using more sophisticated methodologies have generally refuted these findings: density, land use and public transport accessibility can influence travel behaviour, although social and economic factors, particularly household income, usually exert a stronger influence.[14]

The paradox of intensification

Reviewing the evidence on urban intensification, smart growth and their effects on travel behaviour, Melia et al. (2011)[15] found support for the arguments of both supporters and opponents of the compact city. Planning policies which increase population densities in urban areas do tend to reduce car use, but the effect is a weak one, so doubling the population density of a particular area will not halve the frequency or distance of car use.

For example, Portland, Oregon, a U.S. city which has pursued smart growth policies, substantially increased its population density between 1990 and 2000 when other US cities of a similar size were reducing in density. As predicted by the paradox, traffic volumes and congestion both increased more rapidly than in the other cities, despite a substantial increase in transit use.

These findings led them to propose the paradox of intensification, which states:

At the city-wide level it may be possible, through a range of positive measures, to counteract the increases in traffic and congestion which would otherwise result from increasing population densities: Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany is one example of a city which has been more successful in this respect.

This study also reviewed evidence on the local effects of building at higher densities. At the level of the neighbourhood or individual development, positive measures (e.g. improvements to public transport) will usually be insufficient to counteract the traffic effect of increasing population density. This leaves policy-makers with four choices: intensify and accept the local consequences, sprawl and accept the wider consequences, a compromise with some element of both, or intensify accompanied by more radical measures such as parking restrictions, closing roads to traffic and carfree zones.

Influence in Europe

The European Commission published the Green Paper Towards a new culture for urban mobility[16] on 27 September 2007. Several institutions reacted[17] to the Green Paper among them the European Parliament.

Based on the preparatory work of its Committee on Transport and Tourism,[18] the European Parliament in its Resolution of 9 July 2008[19] called among other things for “drawing up customised sustainable mobility plans and supporting measures for regional and urban planning ('city of short distances'), a process in which all parties concerned should be involved from an early stage”. They referred among others to the EU strategy to combat climate change and other environmental problems.

Influence in the Netherlands

The Netherlands' urban planning is highly influenced by the 'compacte stad'. In the 1960s cities expanded in large, top-down planned neighbourhoods using the scarce space available to use as efficiently as possible. Later, cities weren't allowed to expand anyhow, giving way for completely new towns on moderate distances from the main city, in order to keep the new towns influenced mainly by their 'capital', however, giving the towns also some own air. Public transport between the main city and its towns in the rural areas connected them. This policy (groeikernenbeleid) resulted in typical commuter towns. Afterwards, in the 1980s, governments decided people need and want to live in this capital city itself and the groeikernenbeleid was rejected. New urban neighbourhoods had to be around a city, as a skin, encircling skins of older neighbourhoods. The new neighbourhoods were cleverly designed, relatively dense and with very good connections to get downtown by public transport or bicycle.

This history results in a lack of urban sprawl, or at least of new urban sprawl. As new neighbourhoods need to be built as an outer skin around existing settlements and as other policies prohibite establishing new settlements outside other towns or villages, no new linear villages could be founded without governmental intervention any more. This in order to keep the rural landscape 'clean' and cities dense and compact.

As a result, in Dutch towns all neighbourhoods are close to city centers, enabling inhabitants to get around quickly and cheaply by bike. Getting out of town doesn't involve driving through ever-ongoing sprawled suburbs, making it easy and popular to visit rural areas. By all these regulations, for instance the Groene Hart (Green Hart amid the Randstad) is kept green, while buffers around cities like Amsterdam, Utrecht and Delft avoids getting the cities grown together entirely.

Influence in the United Kingdom

The Compact City had a particularly strong influence on planning policy in the UK during the Labour Governments of 1997–2010. The first Labour Government in 1998 set up the Urban Taskforce under Lord Richard Rogers, which produced the report Towards an Urban Renaissance. Influenced by this report, the UK Government issued PPG 3 Planning Policy Guidance on Housing which introduced a 60% brownfield target, a minimum net residential density guideline of 30 dwellings per hectare, a sequential hierarchy beginning with urban brownfield land, maximum parking guidelines replacing the previous minima, and a policy of intensification around public transport nodes. Over the succeeding years, these targets were substantially exceeded, with the brownfield proportion reaching 80% by 2009, and average densities 43 dwellings per hectare.[20]

See also


  1. ^ a b The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) New York: Random House. ISBN 0-679-60047-7
  2. ^ Dempsey, Nicola (2010) Revisiting the Compact City? Built Environment 36(1)
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Dantzig, G. B. and Saaty, T. L., 1973, Compact City: Plan for a Liveable Urban Environment, W. H. Freeman, San Francisco.
  5. ^ Jenks, M., Burton, E. and Williams, K. (Editors), 1996, The Compact City: A Sustainable Urban Form?, Spon Press; ISBN 0-419-21300-7.
  6. ^ [ See for example, Kaid Benfield, "The Country's Most Ambitious Smart Growth Project", The Atlantic, July 26, 2011]
  7. ^  
  8. ^ Lehmann, S. (2010) Green urbanism: Formulating a series of holistic principles. S.A.P.I.EN.S 3 (2)The Principles of Green Urbanism (Earthscan, 2010; ISBN 978-1-84407-817-2)
  9. ^ Cities and Automobile Dependence: An International Sourcebook, Newman P and Kenworthy J, Gower, Aldershot, 1989.
  10. ^ MINDALI, O., RAVEH, A. and SALOMON, I., 2004. Urban density and energy consumption: a new look at old statistics. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 38(2), pp. 143-162.
  11. ^ e.g. FRANK, L. and PIVOT, G., 1994. Impact of Mixed Use and Density on Three Modes of Travel. Transportation Research Record, 1446, pp. 44-52.
  12. ^ Transport Reviews Volume 29 Issue 3 (2009) was entirely devoted to this issue
  13. ^ e.g. Bagley, M.N. and Mokhtarian, P.L. (2002) The impact of residential neighborhood type on travel behavior: A structural equations modeling approach. Annals of Regional Science36 (2), 279.
  14. ^ e.g. Handy, S., Cao, X. and Mokhtarian, P.L. (2005) Correlation or causality between the built environment and travel behavior? Evidence from Northern California. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment10 (6), 427-444.
  15. ^ Melia, S., Barton, H. and Parkhurst, G. (In Press) The Paradox of Intensification. Transport Policy 18 (1)
  16. ^ Green Paper - Towards a new culture for urban mobility, European Commission, 27 September 2007
  17. ^ EU documents mentioning the 2007 European Commission Green Paper – Towards a new culture for urban mobility
  18. ^ Draft Report on: Towards a new culture of urban mobility, Motion for a European Parliament resolution, In: 2008/2041(INI). European Parliament, Committee on Transport and Tourism, 27 February 2009, downloaded 25 October 2011.
  19. ^ European Parliament resolution of 9 July 2008 on "Towards a new culture of urban mobility"
  20. ^ Land Use Change Statistics (England) 2009 – provisional estimates (July 2010) Department of Communities and Local Government

External links

  • Compact City Performance Based Building
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