Nuances of urban density
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul C. Villarete (The Freeman) - January 21, 2020 - 12:00am

Part 2 – Densities

Last week, we started off on the discussions on this matter with a realization that the number of floors above ground a city is built, on the average, will affect its area, and the average distance (and time spent) for its citizens to travel from their homes to places of work on a daily basis. When a city is mostly one-story affairs, the wider it becomes and the farther and longer it takes for its people to travel, compared to a city with multi-level structures.

Such single-height cities are hypothetical, of course. Except for tiny towns, most urban areas generally show a tapering landscape with tall buildings at the center (the Central Business District, or CBD), with building heights tapering downwards towards its outskirts. How the people are clustered or spread over the area is most often defined by its density, measured in persons per square measure of area, usually in terms of residences (where they live at night). A second measure for further scrutiny would be the daytime population, where people are (working) during the day.

We need to premise discussions on urban density with realities of uneven distribution of people. Two cities of the same densities maybe very different from each other in terms of unevenness. There is an interesting discussion about this by urbanist Alain Bertaud, in his 2018 book “Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.” But that’s how cities take form, let’s just look at the basic understanding of density measurements first, without looking at how they came to be. In general, how people are spread out is always uneven, all densities are always averaged.

With these premises, we thus see that a city’s density would be different from any smaller part of it, just as a country’s density would be different from any of its provinces. And since cities are evolving, studies involving densities are, often, comparative in nature, both in terms of distinct cities or, in some cases, the same city at different times (years, decades apart). When making comparison on a global scale, we must consider the differences in each country’s geopolitical subdivisions and employ comparative ones. It usually does not make sense to compare the population density of a province against a city, or a city against a ward (barangay). This is especially tricky with a city and the metropolis it belongs especially if they have the same name (example: Metro Cebu vis-à-vis Cebu City; Manila and Metro Manila). And much more care should be taken when comparing areas from different countries.

At the end of the day, comparative analysis is employed because cities are not static, they are always evolving and the forces causing these must be investigated if we are to have better cities in the future. Bertaud argues these are not the product of political leadership or physical urban planning, but by forces of labor and production markets. Unfortunately, these are the ones we often place little regard on, or even disregard. (To be continued)

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