Compact cities - contrasting experiences

Tim Harrup

In introducing the concept and the article, the author says that proposals associated with the term encourage denser occupation of cities, with commerce and services close to homes, with pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users prioritised. Some European capitals, such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, are often cited as prime examples of this model. The opposite of the new concept is found in the dispersed city, where the neighborhoods are predominantly residential, away from the center, and require long commuting from home to work.

The first study to be quoted dates back to 2012 (Compact City Policies: A Comparative Assessment), published by the OECD. Scattered cities demand that infrastructure networks – such as water, energy and sewage – reach the most distant neighbourhoods, which generates a high cost for the government. This distance also makes it difficult to set up transportation services. In addition, the city does not expand evenly, so it is common for there to be empty land within the urban fabric. Instead of expanding the urbanized area, the city could ‘grow inwards’, taking advantage of these vacant lots. The OECD’s report also claims that having services and jobs close to home contributes to a better quality of life. In this view, the compact form would contribute to the ‘rescue’ of urban life, coexistence in the neighborhood, improved street commerce and well-being in cities. However, the popularity of closed-off condominiums, for example, indicates that not everyone likes to live close to the urban buzz.


Cost of course plays a part. Initiatives to contain the city often ignore the need for cheap and abundant urban land. In the vast majority of cities, land is more expensive in denser areas. There are also cities that pose physical barriers to growth, such as green belts. In this case, an artificial scarcity is being created. Defending policies like this means defending higher prices for urban land. There is a downside to all this, however, as pointed out by Shlomo Angel in his book Planet of Cities. He describes the case of Seoul where, 1971, the Korean government strictly prohibited the expansion of the urban area. But the number of households in the city more than doubled between 1970 and 1990, while South Korea’s per capita income multiplied by three. The population therefore began to be squeezed into ever smaller and more expensive properties. Angel points out that the price of land in 1989 was 23 times higher than in 1970. The article goes on to quote the United Nations, which has said that by 2050. Brazil will add 29 million inhabitants to its cities. This increase is not only due to population growth, but also to migrants moving to cities from the countryside. It is estimated that, in the same period, the urban population will increase from the current 80% to more than 90% of the country’s inhabitants.


Along with cost, regulations also have a part to play in housing and how it is organized. Our cities depend on an informal market to provide affordable housing. Clandestine subdivisions allow families to purchase a cheap lot and build their house little by little. It is remarkable that such citizens are able to locate a place to live without having access to real estate financing. Only small debts are incurred in construction materials and the work can be halted in times of financial difficulty. Properties built in these conditions also feed a wide rental market in the peripheries of Brazil.
Michael Neuman states in his article ‘The Compact City Fallacy’ that restricting urban form is only possible under strong regulation. This is perhaps the biggest paradox of the compact city. Under the pretext of establishing a utopian relationship between human beings and the city, this proposal induces an artificial form, where there is little room for experimentation. It is not a good thing to intervene in a city without identifying where the demand for land, housing and work is. Rules and guidelines are necessary, but their excess hinders the observation of these characteristics. Urban evolution ends up being sacrificed in favour of a city ideal.

The author states that the point is not about being against the compact city, but about questioning its viability. Our cities are a long way from housing their entire population in well-structured neighborhoods. In a country as unequal as Brazil, there will always be people willing to live dozens of kilometers from their place of work. Between reducing housing costs or commuting time, the first option usually takes priority. For many families, these are the only places that offer a viable housing cost.

Despite all this, in 2016, the ‘Atlas of Urbn Expansion’ study gathered a large amount of urban data around the world. The survey points out that cities are not becoming more compact, but just the opposite. On average, population density has been decreasing decade after decade, something that has been going on for at least a century. This trend is global, and efforts to reverse it have been unsuccessful. In developing countries, though, a large migration of the rural population to cities is expected, in addition to a greater population growth than that of developed countries. Everything indicates that these countries will face a major expansion of urban areas in the coming years. Believing that this movement can be stopped takes the risk of not preparing for it.