Coronavirus highlights risks of urban hyper-densification

By Christine Hempel, Per G. Berg, and Per Hedfors

The positive outcomes attributed to higher levels of density in urban development are widely believed: pressure on natural open spaces can be reduced, farmland and rural conservation areas may be preserved, efficiencies are gained in the municipal provision of infrastructure, less heat energy is consumed, and social vitality may grow. In North America, where resistance to density remains pronounced, professional and academic discourse in fields of architecture, planning and ecology has been singularly supportive of rapid intensification as a top strategy to counteract the damaging effects of more than a half-century of suburban sprawl. Until now, voices protesting densification as a panacea for all urban ailments have been drowned out by the urgent global imperative to conserve resources and curb sprawl; thoughtful discourse about the negative effects of density have been limited.

In Sweden, urgent demands for new housing fueled by recent urbanization and immigration trends have led to a call for rapid intensification in cities; authorities have responded with fast-paced development programs and radical plans for densification. The main solution in most Swedish municipalities was densify the city core and the inner suburbs! 

Studies have emerged that recently-built Swedish housing projects have become too dense, resulting in damage to the socio-ecological fabric of established communities at the local and regional level1. Local resistance is now growing; academics, planners and ecologists are especially alarmed by the trend to make way for new housing by eradicating small urban forest patches that sustain human-nature relationships within cities.

Beyond ecological objectives, urban green spaces deliver a wide range of heath and social benefits for all people regardless of income level, age, or culture. Societal capacity to recover from illness may well depend on everyday access to such spaces. According to the World Health Organization, access to green space addresses public health challenges faced by cities: obesity, cardiovascular disease, mental health and well-being, air pollution and climate risk factors, to name just a few: “There are very few, if any, other public health interventions that can achieve all of this”2.  United Nations sustainability goals call for providing accessible, green and quality public spaces that are “multifunctional areas for social interaction and inclusion, human health and well-being”3. The Coronavirus pandemic gives us a much-needed pause to investigate the positive effects of urban green spaces and the negative effects of hyper-densification in a nuanced and studious way.

A case study in Uppsala, Sweden, provides an example of a phenomenon that is unfolding around the globe. Bowing to economic pressures, using density as an environmental rationalization, decisionmakers continue to approve development plans that destroy existing mature forest patches and fractal green networks.

Case Study: Eriksberg, Uppsala

Uppsala is a mid-sized city north of Stockholm with many districts targeted for ambitious growth, including two and three-fold occupancy increases. Projects recently proposed by the municipality have been heavily criticized because interventions will cause severe damage to cherished spaces. Ignoring their own policies to protect the city’s green wedges and blue corridors to ensure the maintenance and development of linkages, the municipality proposes the eradication of significant urban forest ecosystems in multiple districts to make way for new housing4. Plans for one area in particular, Eriksberg, has drawn the ire of local academics and planning professionals who have raised alarms about proposed hyper-densification. 

In 2015 the municipality of Uppsala initiated a planning program that calls for 2400 new homes to be added to the existing 3000 homes. The 44 hectare district contains a diverse mix of housing forms and income levels as it was originally built in several historic phases: a villa area was built in the 1920s, an area of multi-family homes was added to the east in the 1940s, and in the 1960s a modernist development “hus i park” (“house in park”)  was added as part of Sweden’s ambitious public housing project, Million Programme (Miljonprogrammet). 

Most highly contested in the current municipal plan, is the removal of a mature forest patch, a green wedge central to the existing community with high cultural and natural values, providing free space for people and animals, and a key component for human health and recovery. Local academic and professor of Landscape Architecture at SLU University called the plans ignorant and reckless: “we fear that current plans are contributing to frustrated children, angry young people and lonely adults… Across the country, politicians and construction companies consciously and often cynically build in darkness, lack of green spaces, transparency, bleak outlook, noise and social congestion in our everyday environments in a way that has been unparalleled for more than a hundred years in Sweden.5 

The balance between density and spaciousness in today’s Eriksberg, seems almost ideal; emotional and physical well-being for residents of all ages are supported by the existing built form. The patterns of roads, paths, shortcuts, cycling lanes and walkways make the area walkable and easily cycled with proximity to service, care and schools, promoting mobility and active recreation. Restoration and psychological health are strengthened by biophilic relationships enabled by the proximity between the forest patches and the housing blocks. This intimacy with nature permits residents to develop ecological bonds, provides spaciousness for social support, and fosters tactile contact with nature. The original plan has all the qualities needed for decreasing the spread of such a disease and to overcome a period of isolation with quality indoor and outdoor life. 

“To receive the full benefits of natural therapy today, we must consider the entire urban ecosystem – safe water, clean air, and the opportunity to view and actively engage trees, flowers, sky, butterflies, and other wildlife. For people to receive the maximum health benefits, the form of the city must be reordered to provide these therapeutic remedies in our everyday lives.”6 

The Municipality has proposed that the forested areas and open spaces are removed and replaced with 5-8 storey buildings. The planned densification in Eriksberg will not only have implications for life quality and access to green in general, but may produce a pandemic generator.  Developers use before-and-after illustrations to describe desirable future scenarios. These watercolors, on the other hand, show a bleaker future for residents.

Figure 1 – Before. Existing site conditions in Eriksberg, Uppsala. Residents of a public housing project have everyday access to an urban forest patch that supports exploration, nature immersion, restoration, and social bonding. Illustration: C. Hempel
Figure 2-After. Proposed densification strategy. Forest patches and networks are replaced by smaller, darker constructed courtyards without mature trees, landscape cover or ecological connectivity to support wildlife. This is a place where distances are too short in confined green courtyards, along walking paths, in communication nodes, and service centers to contain a disease like Covid-19. Illustration: C. Hempel

1. Berg, P., Granvik, M. and Hedfors, P. (2012). Functional Density – A conceptual framework in a townscape areas context. Nordic Journal of Architectural Research V. 2 pp. 29-46

2. World Health Organization (2017). Urban Green Space Interventions: A review of impacts and effectiveness. https://www.cbd.int/health/who-euro-green-spaces-urbanhealth.pdf

3. United Nations (2017) New Urban Agenda, Habitat III. Item 37. P. 13.

4. Bergquist, D., Hempel, C., and Green, J. (2019) Bridging the Gap between Theory and Design: a Proposal for Regenerative Campus Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) in Ultuna, Sweden. In Leal Filho, W., Bardi, U. (Eds) Sustainability in University Campuses. Springer: Switzerland

5. Berg, P., Eriksson, T., Eriksson, F. (2019). Unique brutal densification: Upsala Nya Tidning newspaper, Feb. 28, 2019.

6. Hester, R. (2006). Design for Ecological Democracy. The MIT Press. P. 305.

About the Authors:

Christine Hempel is an urban designer and researcher with a background in architecture, planning and illustration.

Per G. Berg is a research director of Landscape Architecture – especially Functional Densification issues.

Per Hedfors is Landscape Architect, researcher and planner, specializing in Landscape Architecture theory and Soundscape Studies