Town Planning Review 91.3 Featured Article: Dunning, Hickman and While

The editors of Town Planning Review (TPR) have selected the following paper as a Featured Article in TPR 91.3.

This paper will be free to access for a limited time:

‘Planning control and the politics of soft densification’ by Richard Dunning, Hannah Hickman and Aidan While

When asked to describe the paper and highlight its importance, Dunning stated the following:

The idea of concentrating development in existing settlements is now a central principle of good urban design and planning. Locating people in urban areas reduces the need to travel and eases pressure to build on greenfield sites in unsustainable locations. However increasing the density of urban, peri- and suburban areas can be difficult if it alters the established character of an area and disrupts the existing quality of residential life.

For many years the UK government has been reluctant to sanction significant densification through infill development, reflected in policy presumption against ‘garden grabbing’.  However over the last decade the pressure to deliver new house-building has led to a more permissive approach to ‘soft densification’ in England, or what the UK government has recently termed ‘gentle densification’.

This paper is based on research commissioned by the French Government, which sought to learn lessons from the UK to help inform new policies of suburban densification in Paris and other large French cities.  Indeed, the term ‘soft densification’ was itself coined by a French academic, Anastasia Touati-Morel,. The task of our team was to draw lessons from the UK approach through desk based mapping and two local policy case studies that form the basis for the Town Planning Review paper.

The paper starts by outlining the arguments for suburban densification and also some of the challenges involved in managing the cumulative social, cultural, aesthethic and environmental impacts.  We argue that soft densification can lead to significant change over time that needs to be actively managed.  The tensions and challenges in managing soft densification are then explored through case studies in London (Ealing) and Bristol.  As with most hotspots of densification, the pressure for development in most acute in affluent, vibrant and desirable neighbourhoods where there is profit to be made. The Ealing case study tells the story of the local planning authority’s attempts to manage soft densificaiton in the context of national planning policy that is more laissez-faire.  In Bristol, there is growing concern that the City Council is not strict enough with infill development and that is threatening the family residential character of some inner city neighbourhoods. In both cases there is wide support for increased residential densities that can enhance their vibrant communities.  But that is not best served through uncontrolled and socially unsustainable development that primarily benefits land and property owners at the expense of local residents.

The recent statement of support for ‘gentle densification’ marks something of a shift in the UK government’s approach to suburban development.  It is to be hoped that it will also lead to a more strategic approach to the management of soft densfication. Our paper makes a distinctive contribution to academic and policy understanding by helping to highlight the significance of an under-researched but increasingly important aspect of international urban planning.

The editors of Town Planning Review have also selected ‘Organic approaches to planning as densification strategy? The challenge of legal contextualisation in Buiksloterham, Amsterdam’ by Sebastian Dembski as a Featured Article in 91.3. Read Dembski’s introduction to the article here.