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Why the Answer to Urban Design is about Location & Not Density?

Urban Design often relates to being an interdisciplinary subject that unites all the built environment professions, be it urban planning, architecture, and various engineering expertise. It’s generally known in the art of making connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric, and most of the time deals with the design and management of public space at a large scope.

I have been following Lloyd Alter from treehugger on his topics on Urban Design, and I believe he has made some bold statement and provocative thoughts on how urban design is supposed to be like in comparison with some who measures the principle of urban design from the perspective of urban density. As the conventional thought is such that if you have a higher density of city scape instead of everything being spread apart, the assumption is that the energy consumption on transport will thus be lesser.  Generally, it is true that having things being centralized ease the movement of the crowd but it seems that the findings have flaws because some have defined cities density in a vague way. The fact is not about Density, it’s all about transportation and linkages of a city.

The above graph is probably the most famous image used in many books and publications, it’s by UNEP, which plots energy consumption against density, to demonstrate that New York density makes it greener than any cities in America. Anyone in the states knows that New York, in fact, is not dense at all but only Manhattan. And my instinct tells me that New York CBD center is definitely denser than Singapore CBD, most likely this graph is taken by the overall population over the area calculated, which simply does not reflect the true concentration of a mentioned area. Sure you have Hong Kong at the other end which I agree it’s a high-density country but it does not make sense to have the whole graph with a wide empty space in the middle. It simply doesn’t convince me too.

“Density is in my opinion, ends up being almost completely irrelevant. What matters is how you get around in your cities, not how tall the buildings are.”

Probably this reflects better. Our road systems are designed to allow more people to drive, more town planners have no choice but to keep on widening the roads to prevent traffic congestion, thus has made the citizens an ease to convince themselves to get a car, as the population soars, the problem never comes to an end. It is true that people do this less in Manhattan compared to Los Angeles but really it has nothing to do with density but everything is about linkages and walkability.

Taking a case for the south Asia countries will be a comparison of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur for instance. KL has a space of 272 so miles (704 km²), while Singapore has  243 km2 (94 sq mi). KL has a population of close to 2 million while Singapore has 5.18 million people. However, Urban congestion exists in KL more often than Singapore and I highly suspect it’s a better of Location planning. The urban planning of Singapore comes with a good planning of locations, with identified zoning of the function of an area being mapped with good linkages of public transports such as MRT. It thus has studied the movement of the crowd before placing it, furthermore the cost of having a car in Singapore is almost as expensive as having a house in surrounding Kuala Lumpur.

It’s true that urban planners do better impact compared to the architect. How you get to work is far more important than what you work in, that it is fine to build efficient buildings, but imagine putting a green building in a badly located place, you get what I mean. If a city is not designed to be walk or transit without proper linkages, the green building certainly isn’t doing any good.

A better illustration from United States EPA . It is here proving that energy efficiency works better in logistics city planning compared to the green building.

Thus we have a lot of masterplans promoting “city within city” concept where examples will be Mid valley cities, Sunway City, Utama Group, and recently IJM’s the Light at Penang, where developers try to develop a master plan of every infrastructure and public amenities within an area before having the need to exist to the nerve of highways to travel.

The walkability of a place is not defined by the density, the height of the building, but it’s all about location, location, location. A better illustration is www.walkscore.com where you can analyze how walking-friendly your place is.

The sample of the score sheet is such.

 I think the conclusion is really obvious. Better Urban Design is more crucial than Green buildings. In fact, personally I am never really into the fan of green building, it’s been a great debate, and I think it’s a marketing gimmick, or to create something afresh. Perhaps it helps in the awareness, but if you step into a heritage building, you will realize the living environment is much better than the current modern buildings. Why? simply because green building is just a term that has redefined itself, but existed before.