Are we dense?

Would we be happy living in a city that packed more people in?  If density is so unpopular, why is New York so cool?

Melbourne (4 million peeps) might be the wrong shape.  It’s a 70km trip from Sydenham, in the north east, to Frankston in the south west.  And these are established suburbs. Melton and Pakenham – where the new houses are going – are 104 km apart.    

New York (16 million) is 80 km from East Brunswick in its south to Yonkers in its north.  Paris (11 million) is 54 km from Versailles in the far west to Tremblay-en-France in the east. 

(nb. in the interests of keeping TTTE carbon neutral, this research has been done virtually).  

But all the wide brown space is the reason our ancestors set out for here…   why should we have to live cheek to jowl, rubbing greasy shoulders with our fellow man?  

Reason 1 : Sprawl leads to commuting, which is bad for you.

commuting and life satisfaction graph

When you consider that the point of living farther away is that you get to live in the house of your dreams and/or save money, the relentless downhill slope of this graph is startling.   Importantly, the researchers controlled for socio-economic factors that could explain the differences.

Reason 2: Density seems to limit the environmental footprint of a city.

petrol density

If you care about climate change, this is going to be a much more realistic solution than counting your food miles.

Reason 3: Sprawl is expensive to service. It’s much cheaper to provide additional infrastructure to established areas.

My theory on why urban density is unpopular is that there’s a game theory dynamic to it.  My best possible outcome is that everyone else chooses to live in high towers, so that land is cheap near the city. Then I can live the quarter-acre dream, while keeping all the benefits of living in a dense city!  The problem is with the aggregation of all this self-interest, which propagates urban sprawl.

This quote comes from Rob Adams, the Director of Design and Urban Development at the City of Melbourne:

“We have reached a time when the drivers of sustainable cities are the same as the drivers of liveable cities.”

Sprawling cities are no longer liveable cities.  Suburbs were revolutionary when the new technology – cars and trains-  meant that the link between time and distance was broken.  But the simple geometry of commuting means that when suburbs go out far enough, the roads that link suburbs to the hub get overfull.  

Density brings a range of services within people’s reach. And where density can put things within walking distance, it functions as a social leveler. If anyone wants to see how density makes for dynamic cities, I commend to you a research trip to Canberra (and I challenge you to stay for more than two days…).

Madrid has 10 to 12 times the density of Melbourne. It’s not exactly considered an urban hell-hole. If we wanted to increase Melbourne’s urban density, how would we do it?

Rob Adams has a plan he calls the six percent plan. It involves leaving 94 percent of Melbourne as is, and focussing on ramping up density along tram and bus routes, such as Sydney Rd in Brunswick and Riversdale Rd in Camberwell. Only the blocks abutting the main road would be allowed to be developed. The great part of the plan is that a maximum height of eight stories would be sufficient to get the urban density up from its current 30 people/ hectare, to the target range of 180-400.

Since population policy is not on anyone’s agenda, an extra million people will have to live somewhere, by 2030 at the latest.  Adams claims that an additional million to 2.5 million people could be squeezed into the inner city, without building Docklands-style towers, and without steamrolling the suburban house and garden. (I have a copy of the report but it’s not available on the net.  Let me know if you would like to see it.)  Obviously, improved public transport has to be part of the solution.


I think the six percent plan is brilliant.  The main reason not to have greater urban density already is that density has been inexplicably unpopular.  Can’t people see that if they give up a little, they gain a lot?  I hope that the environment argument for higher density is these days going to be much more acceptable. It should help open people’s eyes to the liveability argument.  

Can we change Melbourne? Why shouldn’t we? Is the centre the best place to densify? Do multiple activity centres work? Are we kissing goodbye to ‘the Australian way of life?’  And would anyone care to describe the differences between Canberra and New York in 10 words or fewer?

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

5 thoughts on “Are we dense?”

  1. New York has harbour AND mafia

    The life satisfaction/distance relationship = too much time to think while commuting

    This report…is that a leak?


  2. I saw the presentation of the settlement along tram corridors but not the report – would love a copy if available.

    Great stuff – I’m adding this blog to my faves.


  3. Densification makes complete sense to me too. Here’s my rationale why the electorate at large doesn’t like densification:

    Most people own real estate, often ‘the family home’. It is the single most valuable thing that they will ever own. It can make or break the financial security of families for generations.

    The price of real estate is set by supply vs demand. And location is everything – a terrace in Carlton is worth virtually nothing $75K. It’s just that plot of land is worth $500K!

    If you increase supply in desirable locations (without a concommittant increase in demand) then prices fall in that area. All the talk about heritage, easements, it’s all nonsense. People are only concerned with the rarity value of a dwelling in their location.

    Considering the growing population, and trends toward single people living alone, I see the increase in demand as guaranteed. But until the electorate agrees with this, they are not willing to gamble on the house.


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