On being dense

Ooh, we like the way these attics have been put to good use – people can live in them and help make the city better by making it more dense. But density isn’t a simple concept. In planning and architecture (or regeneration if you’re into euphemisms) it’s either hugely technical or pretty vague depending on who you talk to and where. One planning glossary gives us this which kind of covers it:

Density – in the case of residential development, a measurement of either the number of habitable rooms per hectare or the number of dwellings per hectare.

Generally people who think green these days, and who think sustainable, think of urban density at least as some kind of opposite to the arch enemy, urban sprawl. So, to have 70-100 dwellings per hectare gives you a nicely dense urban fabric, with people living close to each other and moving relatively short distances to satisfy their daily needs. For entertainment, say, or a shop, or work. Suburbanites have fewer dwellings per hectare and travel, as we know, in cars rather than on foot.

But then it starts to get complicated and the figures start doing your head in. In many cases, the things that get counted in one place don’t get counted elsewhere, making comparison by numbers a bit tricky.

Finland, for instance, isn’t that interested in density in terms of dwellings per area. More attention is paid to how much room a person has to mess around in, and in this sense Finland’s formerly cramped living conditions are gradually giving way to more square metres per person (currently on average between 34 and 35 in Helsinki itself). But there’s potential for confusion – what is Helsinki? The centre? Does it include Vantaa and Espoo? In which case “Helsinki” really isn’t a dense city at all.

Helsinki itself is interested in “asumisväljyys” it seems, or “habitation spaciousness” not density as such. Also, stats in Helsinki, give you loads of stuff on tenure – currently about 45% owned, 45% rented (higher than Finnish average) and the rest various forms of supported tenure or, amazingly for this country which inherited Sweden’s love of statistical sciences for governing and a strong bureaucratic streak from Russia’s Tsarist administration – unknown!

So, if the figures are complicated, can pictures help? We think they can. Here one more image from Kamppi (the neighbourhood) that we hope speak for themselves.

And here an image from the other Kamppi. Not all commuting then happens by car, even in Finland, even though it is often mistakenly thought of as a part of the United States or Canada mysteriously cut off from the motherland but equally crazy about the motor car.

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