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Urban density is a term used in urban planning and urban design to refer to the number of people inhabiting a given urbanized area. As such it is to be distinguished from other measures of population density. Urban density is considered an important factor in understanding how cities function. Research related to urban density occurs across diverse areas, including economics, health, innovation, psychology and geography as well as sustainability.

A 2019 meta-analysis of 180 studies on a vast number of economic outcomes of urban density concluded that urban density had net positive effects. However, there may be some regressive distributional effects.[1]

Sustainability

A graph showing the relationship between urban density and petrol use.

It is commonly asserted that higher density cities are more sustainable than low density cities. Much urban planning theory, particularly in North America, the UK, Australia and New Zealand has been developed premised on raising urban densities, such as New Urbanism, transit-oriented development, and smart growth. This assertion, however, remains a contested or challenged one.[2]

The link between urban density and aspects of sustainability remains a contested area of planning theory.[3] Jan Gehl, prominent Urban Designer and expert on sustainable urbanism, argues that low-density, dispersed cities are unsustainable as they are automobile dependent. NASA, for example, has established a direct correlation between urban density and air pollution.[4]

Others, such as Randy O'Toole of the Libertarian Cato Institute, point to how raising densities results in more expensive real estate, greater road congestion and more localized air pollution. At a broader level, there is evidence to indicate a strong negative correlation between the total energy consumption of a city and its overall urban density, i.e. the lower the density, the more energy consumed.[5]

Measurement

Urban density is a very specific measurement of the population of an urbanized area, excluding non-urban land-uses. Non-urban uses include regional open space, agriculture and water-bodies.

There are a variety of other ways of measuring the density of urban areas:

  • Population density - the number of human persons per unit area
    • Median density - a density metric which measures the density at which the average

      A 2019 meta-analysis of 180 studies on a vast number of economic outcomes of urban density concluded that urban density had net positive effects. However, there may be some regressive distributional effects.[1]

      It is commonly asserted that higher density cities are more sustainable than low density cities. Much urban planning theory, particularly in North America, the UK, Australia and New Zealand has been developed premised on raising urban densities, such as New Urbanism, transit-oriented development, and smart growth. This assertion, however, remains a contested or challenged one.[2]

      The link between urban density and aspects of sustainability remains a contested area of planning theory.[3] Jan Gehl, prominent Urban Designer and expert on sustainable urbanism, argues that low-density, dispersed cities are unsustainable as they are automobile dependent. NASA, for example, has established a direct correlation between urban density and air pollution.[4]

      Others, such as Randy O'Toole of the Libertarian Cato Institute, point to how raising densities results in more expensive real estate, greater road congestion and more localized air pollution. At a broader level, there is evidence to indicate a strong negative correlation between the total energy consumption of a city and its overall urban density, i.e. the lower the density, the more energy consumed.[5]

      Measurement

      Urban density is a very specific measurement of the population of an urbanized area, excluding non-urban land-uses. Non-urban uses include regional open space, agriculture and water-bodies.

      There are a variety of other ways of measuring the density of urban areas: