Avoid “blunt” urbanism by prioritising constraint

The high density versus low density debate is a blunt, catch-all discussion, which tends to divide opinion and create conflict. We need instead to find the issues that bring people together. My experience is that these tend to be about:

– convenience
– safety
– sense of community and cultural identity
– sense of privacy and individualism
– access to urban amenities: work, school, shops
– access to nature.

There are apparent contradictions here, yet urban settlements handle multiple needs if they are laid out to be, first and foremost, accessible to all users. This comes down to the design of connections at every scale, from motorways to footpaths. It also requires a degree of constraint: you shouldn’t be able to drive through the middle of town at top speed but nor should you walk on the highway.

Fortunately, the human species has evolved to prioritise constraint, which is at the heart of democracy. Towns and cities are creations of constraint – at least they should be.

So, my experience is that it’s not about high or low density but a mix of both. Nor is it about private or public transport, but both.

The question is: which forms of development optimise accessibility for most people most of the time? Again, my experience is that it comes down to the way that urban settlements are laid out as networks of space, how these networks are occupied by different kinds of land use and which travel options are available for people to move through the network to reach the different uses.

It means transport planners working hand in hand with architects; policymakers with urban planners; above all professionals with people generally: the end users of the places created by development.

It means studying how places work and why they work; looking at a range of places and discussing the pros and cons of each. Using first-hand observations and analytic technology to gather evidence and undertake research. Not throwing single statistics around but considering many issues simultaneously. The issues I list above, and others. Then deciding.

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