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Intensifying urbanization: a challenge and an opportunity for sustainable cities

28 of February '24

Intensifying urbanization: a challenge for sustainable cities

I recently had the opportunity to walk along one of the main arteries of a major city, serving mainly transit traffic. I was looking at how the development in the area was shaping up, what was being built and what was still left of the old urban fabric. The next day, a post popped up on one of the social networks showing me that what I was looking at the day before has a name. What's more, it also has its variations, and just a piece away from my original location, I can encounter just the different variations of this phenomenon.

Walking or driving through the streets of a long-unvisited major city, or visiting neighborhoods where one hasn't been for the past several-or-so years, one can come to the conclusion that much has changed. Arguably, spaces that were once considered unattractive or deserted now appear to be thriving, or even fashionable. Cities are being densified and vacant lots are being developed. From an urban and environmental perspective, this is a good thing - as the efficiency of land is increasing. Such measures are aimed at reducing urban sprawl.

Intensification of urbanization in two variants

Urbanization intensification is the process of increasing the density and diversity of land use in urban areas, especially in strategic locations and spaces whose character is expected to change. It is often seen in developer prospectuses or on city council websites as a way to reduce car dependence, greenhouse gas emissions and urban sprawl, while improving accessibility, livability and services. However, intensifying urbanization without combining it with other policies, such as housing, also poses serious challenges. In terms of urban management, such a move changes a lot like, for example, the level of affordability, traffic flows, pollution levels or changing the character of a place.

Urban expansion is a natural process. It is likely that the place you are in now looked very different a hundred years ago. However, this expansion can occur in different ways and at different scales. Two common ways of urbanization intensification are slow (build-up) intensification and sudden intensification. Gradual intensification refers to the scattered re-development of small and narrow plots of land, the overbuilding and expansion of existing buildings, with minimal impact on urban character. Sudden intensification, on the other hand, refers to the rapid and concentrated development of large plots of land, often covered by a plan to cluster more parcels. This involves major transformations of the area, its character and has a significant impact on the urban structure. This intensification often involves the construction of tall buildings, including residential and commercial high-rises. These buildings are usually designed to accommodate a large number of people or businesses in a relatively small area. Both methods of intensification have their advantages and disadvantages. Gradual intensification can preserve the diversity and mix of functions and building types, as well as the historical and cultural value of urban areas. However, it can be wasteful, requiring considerable creativity and project coordination. These processes also often contribute to the gentrification of an area, creating exclusivity, prestige and consequently economically pushing out the original tenants. Sudden intensification can provide greater density, suddenly bring an area back to life, and create opportunities for innovation and urban renewal. It's also a way of building that takes advantage of economies of scale. However, it can also greatly disrupt the existing urban fabric and identity and thus generate conflicts or even protests from local communities opposed to such abrupt neighborhood changes.


Intensification planned

The main planning guidelines are, of course, contained in local and - more recently - general plans. It is the municipality that decides what and in what character will be built on subsequent plots of land. Institutions can protect specific buildings or areas by including them in the register of historical monuments, recognizing them as important and significant spaces. For the investor, however, it is mainly the Excel and efficiency of the land that matters, so it is not surprising that buildings are almost always built on plots of land, with ratios that oscillate around the maximum. Urban management is an activity on a system of interconnected vessels. Increasing the intensity of development should always have an overriding goal. Often these are revitalization goals, which we know from places like Warsaw's Praga or Krakow's Zabłocie. In the Canadian city of Guelph, with a population roughly the size of our Olsztyn, on the other hand, housing availability has been taken as a goal. The city aims to increase housing density to 50 units per hectare by 2031 to meet growing housing demand and limit urban sprawl.


Of course, I don't expect that after reading this, reality will suddenly change and cities struggling with a housing problem, for example, will decide to increase intensity by building units. The point is that you can track quite well what the money is being spent on. In 2023 alone, local governments invested 87 billion, of which 5% went to construction, 3% to public transportation, 1.8% to climate and air protection, and 1.5% to kindergartens. Roads alone, meanwhile, accounted for 40%, or PLN 35 billion. This literally concretizes the classic arrangement of the hierarchy of space dependencies, access to them and how they are shaped, with an emphasis on spillover rather than intensification.

Decisions about how to change space (and whether to change it at all) are, of course, complex. The choice, of course, depends on a mass of different factors, such as land availability, market demand and supply, political and regulatory frameworks, public and private interests, and social and environmental impacts. In an ideal world, however, urban intensification should balance real benefits and costs and integrate transportation and land-use planning to create a positive feedback loop. This requires a holistic, collaborative approach that incorporates a cross-party long-term vision and short-term actions.

Strategic goals and performance indicators always seem to end up just before elections in our municipalities, so that the ribbon-cutting for a new development will be remembered by voters. It's also usually nicer in the newspaper to have a headline extolling the "biggest investment" or "record-breaking project," unsubtle actions that fit better with pro-climate measures. Perhaps now is the best time to ask about action strategies for the next term.

Magdalena Milert

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