Benefits of being squashed like sardines.

7 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has put unprecedented challenges on human behaviour. The various public health measures of lockdown, social distancing and hygiene accompanied by hefty fines pushed us indoors temporarily leaving ghost-like cities behind. In a short time, the reduction of human activity through remote employment enabled reductions in energy use, traffic, congestion, and air pollution.

Climate change is therefore an environmental, moral, and social issue. It requires a revaluation not only of the urban system but also the introduction of green and blue cities. This shift is by no means simple. In its principle it is ambitious as it asks individuals and large institutions to think differently about efficiency, conservation of finite resources, consumerism, the ecology and global exchange. However, who should be responsible in moving towards more responsible, inclusive, and sustainable choices?

“So how can we promote the sustainable development of our cities by virtue of understanding urban planning sensitively? Can densification and compact city policies lead to a more sustainable urban environment?”

Urban densification, that is increase in the number of dwelling units and mixed-use spaces per acre, is the key to tapping into the potential of cities to become part of the solution to climate change because it encourages efficiency and conservation, while managing dwellings and their respective population. It is a critical aspect of making a city more sustainable and environmentally friendly, since densification includes the need for local recreational areas and generally make green space more accessible for all.

Hong Kong housing

Densification and climate change

Richard Sennett, a professor of urban studies at MIT and senior adviser to the UN on its climate change and cities programme observes that, “At the moment we are reducing density everywhere we can, and for good reason”. “But on the whole density is a good thing: denser cities are more energy efficient. So, I think in the long term there is going to be a conflict between the competing demands of public health and the climate.”

In an age of globalisation and the world being ‘our oyster’, does the above mean that we should focus on the local instead of the global? The above also suggests that carefully planned cities can be dense, however, they must offer an adequate quality of life by creating a system of networks which links people to basic amenities – workplace, shopping stores, educational and religious spaces need to be within convenient proximities from each other.

Such amenities encourage other means of transportation, such as walking, biking, and public transportation. This type of planning reduces the dependency on cars and creates a more harmonious place to dwell in, a city rightfully built for people, not cars.

“…carefully planned cities can be dense, however, they must offer an adequate quality of life by creating a system of networks which links people to basic amenities…”

Having cleaner air also offers a healthier environment for all. In the Brundtland report from 1988, the short distances between urban functions within Copenhagen coupled with a policy aimed at concentrating urban development around public transport (8) were believed in assisting the achievement of sustainable urban development. The latter example supports Sennett’s position and showcases that a more compact urban form supports efficient district heating systems (9) and multi-story housing has lower energy consumption per square meter for heating than detached single family housing (10).

It is estimated that air pollution alone can negatively affect GDP by about 2% to 4%. With urban populations expected to grow at an exponential rate in the coming years, cities will be the main contributors to pollution costs over the next 20 years if nothing is done (2).

This challenge is further complicated by the fact that density is not the only aspect of sustainable urban development. Sustainability in a broader sense should mean a dynamic balance between economic, environmental and social considerations. Therefore, density should not be understood in isolation but in relation to moral economy and social outcomes produced by different density levels (7). The problem of some urban development lies in the continued support of socio-geographical patterns, accelerating gentrification of slums in certain districts.

Now, what happens when you leave the responsibility to people in order find their own way in establishing their space within a city?

“It is estimated that air pollution alone can negatively affect GDP by about 2% to 4%.”

Densification allows people to flourish and be inventive

Necessity is the mother of invention. The word ‘densification’ took a whole new meaning in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Some called it uncontrolled densification, but this has produced a wonderful phenomenon. Let’s take you through the story of Torre David:

In 1990, construction began on the ‘Centro Financiero Confinanzas’, a huge high-rise office complex in Caracas. Construction halted in 1994, after a banking crisis and the 45-story tower stood vacant until 2007, when squatters began moving in, displaced by a massive housing shortage. Authorities at the time turned a blind eye, and the skyscraper, nicknamed the "Tower of David" (after its late owner David Brillembourg), was then home to more than 3,000 residents. The third-highest skyscraper in the country has been jury-rigged with electricity and water up to the 22nd floor making it the world's tallest slum (3, 4, 5).

The new tenants made use of cheap building materials, breeze blocks and tarpaulin, cardboard and corrugated iron, to construct their homes, very much typical of shanty towns. But rather than spreading horizontally, this ‘vertical slum’ became a truly fascinating example of re-appropriation of space in an urban environment.

The occupation of the tower, however, was more than just a search for living space. A flourishing economy built up inside its concrete walls, hairdressers, grocery stores and workshops served the community of increasingly settled occupants. The towers fomented a strong sense of community, utopic even. Roots were set down and the flowering buds of a society emerged, anchoring the tower with more than its massive foundations.

On July 23, 2014, President Nicolás Maduro announced that the government had not yet decided what to do with the building but was considering at least three possible options: “Some are proposing its demolition. Others are proposing turning it into an economic, commercial or financial centre. Some are proposing building homes there. …We’re going to open a debate.” (6) Tenants were evicted, while the future of the structure is still uncertain.

Densification vs Disaggregation

This is urban planning speak for the tension between densification (a push for cities becoming more concentrated) and disaggregation (the separating out of communities in holding back infections and their transmission).

COVID-19 has therefore brought us closer together since there is a push towards improving local services, staycations and generally enjoying the community in which we live in. There is a renewed community activism. Sennett thinks we are potentially seeing a fundamental shift in urban social relations. “City residents are becoming aware of desires that they didn’t realise they had before,” he says, “which is for more human contact, for links to people who are unlike themselves.”

Whether we like it or not, in Malta densification is the norm, and much is being done to protect the scant and sparse rural areas that we have left, and the local biodiversity within it. But let’s face it, we have the luxury of proximity to one’s job not being a significant factor in deciding where to live and therefore there is lot that can already be done in terms of ensuring the wellbeing of citizens within cities if we only redirect our attention away from the car and towards more green forms of transport.

Perhaps a key lesson is that of finding a ‘respectable’ distance which ensures a sense of privacy while enabling human contact and exchange in the context of the compact city. Local plans need to be designed not to merely reflect narrow economic interests in attracting new residents and commercial activities, but rather these concepts would need to be embedded in a far-reaching, national planning strategy for sustainable urban development.

“Perhaps a key lesson is that of finding a ‘respectable’ distance which ensures a sense of privacy while enabling human contact and exchange in the context of the compact city.”

Malta city


The future is to design cities that people are able to socialise without being packed into ‘sardine-like’ venues, but still be far enough to protect themselves from disease. This will come with significant economic reforms. In Anderson’s words from 1998, “the illusion or urban renewal as an integration in which the basic attributes of the urban space is a richness and variety of relationship between people from different social and consumption groups falls own because of solutions dictated by the power of capital”.

We do not yet have the answer to this million-dollar conundrum. But in the new and unpredictable connections swiftly being forged within our cities as a result of the pandemic, there is perhaps some cause for optimism.

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