Seville, 15 Match 2017-- More than 30 international experts on urban planning, finance and legal aspects of urbanization and policy experts participated in the Global Experts Group Meeting (EGM) "Planning Compact Cities: Exploring the possibilities and limits of densification”, organized by UN-Habitat, with the support of Andalusian Agency of International Cooperation for Development (AACID) and the collaboration of Seville City Council.

The meeting aimed to define the possibilities and limits of applying densification as a tool for urban transformation and to establish good practices for avoiding some of its undesired effects.

The overarching objective of this Experts Group Meeting was to increase understanding of densification policies, strategies and tools in the context of Urban Redevelopment and Infill and of their implications for successful practices to improve sustainability of cities as one of the main focus of The New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goal number 11.

In the welcoming session, Juan Espadas, Mayor of Seville, said, “During the decade of the 90´s of the past century ­, Seville lived a growing process in which planification was left behind. That was a mistake from which we have to learn. We have to guarantee planned developments that include people in the center of the action. The Climate Change, The New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are the points of reference in which the cities should focus to achieve more sustainable urban spaces”.

Cities forfeiting agglomeration benefits

Increasingly, cities are forfeiting many of the benefits that agglomeration has to offer. Studies of urban land expansion have shown that over the last two decades most cities in the world have become less dense rather than more and are wasting their potential in ways that generate sprawl, congestion and segregation. These patterns are making cities less pleasant and equitable places in which to live.

UN-Habitat has identified Planned City Infill, Redevelopment and Densification as a critical area of focus in the global urban development agenda and is working to proactively identify, analyze and disseminate local and national approaches which address these trends and leverage density for local development and prosperity.

“It is UN-Habitat’s experience that such interventions, when they are guided by solid urban planning instruments, are based on realistic financial strategies and are firmly anchored in policy and legal frameworks, can support the development of quality density in a diversity of urban settings, and at scale”, said Laura Petrella,  Urban Planning and Design Branch Leader at UN-Habitat.

They demonstrate that urban planning can provide adequate land use for public spaces and streets, organized in an urban structure that minimizes transport, service delivery costs and transaction costs for the urban economy, optimizes the use of urban land, and supports the protection and organization of urban open spaces. These strategies include densification, re-development of the city and also provide conditions for effective slum upgrading, layout of new areas with higher densities, brownfield development, building conversions, and urban mobility efficient development, she noted.

Meeting shows different urban realities

This EGM has shown different urban realities: Inefficient cities with obsolete urban patterns and which are interested in guided densification processes (which will require changes of regulation, provision or restructuration of public space, increased connectivity, etc.); cities which have brownfields (in processes of economic transformation for instance) which can be redeveloped for increasing density in the core urban area or in the first urban crown and, finally, cities that would like to increase.

However, urban densification processes, especially those proposed in degraded areas can generate undesirable effects such as gentrification or unreasonable increases in land prices. These undesirable effects suggest that although densification as a general concept represents a valid and desirable option, there are some limitations in its application that can lead to establish good practices in this type of urban operations.

The main conclusion of the EGM was that complex and global trend of rapid urbanization, mixed with the challenges inherent to urban sprawl, climate change, migration and environmental degradation demands a strong collaborative approach able to balance the different interests of the stakeholders and authorities when looking for innovative solutions and in order to accelerate implementation.

Three main perspectives of densification

Along the first day of the EGM, participants presented and exchanged experiences classified in three main perspectives of densification:

  1. Physical perspective:

Densification represents an opportunity to carry out complex urban restructuring projects. Beyond the previously mentioned advantages, densification is a fundamental tool for governments to obtain the required land to improve existing conditions in the city, either through new infrastructure, new public space and / or new urban equipment.

  1. Financial perspective:

Densification of urban areas is widely used to generate added value in the city. In most cases, the possibility of increasing the volumes of construction or inhabitants that can inhabit a determined plot, leads to an increase of the value of that plot; if the urban operation is also accompanied by improvements in the physical conditions of the environment, this value increase can become proportionally higher than the increase in density.

  1. Legal perspective:

Although urban densification operations are normally promoted and developed at the city level, generally the mechanisms that allow the appropriation of part of the value generated are usually derived from legal frameworks established at the national level. This situation means that in some cases the processes of densification (and particularly some of its benefits) can become very complex from the point of view of its implementation, even in cases where there is an agreement between stakeholders.

While identifying the different dimensions to structure the discussion, the general reflection of the meeting revolved around the possibilities of integration and creation of synergies between these dimensions within the complexity of construction and management of the contemporary city.

The discussions groups about ways to integrate the three perspectives were deployed on the second day of the EGM.  During the sessions, UN-Habitat introduced the social aspects of densification like a cross perspective, as The New Urban Agenda approved in Habitat III puts the people in the center of urban decisions with its declaration that no one can be left behind.

Knowledge captured by this EGM is expected to serve as a guidebook for administrations at all levels, and to further support their quest for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and an inclusive New Urban Agenda.