Archives for category: Urban density
Athens rooftops

Looking northwest over Athens from Lykavittos hill

One striking feature of Athens, for me at least, is the way that rooftop space is massively underused.  This is not only the case for Athens: the same is true of London, or endless other cities.  But Athens presents a case of a very densely populated city where, unlike London, most roofs are flat.  Although space down below may be at a premium, a whole extra city’s worth is available up above.  All that’s there, in most cases, is a washing line or two, and a few TV aerials.  I look out at all this, imagining naively what it would be like if every roof was used as a communal space, draped with greenery.

There are all sorts of reasons why this space is left empty, including the question of how it might be regulated. Blocks of flats are usually maintained collectively by their multiple owners or residents; each household has to contribute a certain amount of money each month towards things like cleaning the entrance hall and stairs, use and repair of the lift, general upkeep, etc. Since these arrangements are inevitably informal, and rely on a degree of goodwill, they need to be kept as simple as possible – especially at a time when money is short.

Dreaming of rooftop gardens or the like is one thing, then, but who would look after them? And who wants the headache of having to intervene when one family (perhaps the one living on the top floor) starts to colonise the space in subtle ways?  It’s rather like the ‘hot-desking’ system in open-plan offices, which goes wrong when people start marking particular desks as their own with personal items. This problem can be partly resolved through a rule that all desks have to be cleared at the end of each working day – but that produces a rather sterile working environment (and, even then, people may effectively claim a particular desk as their own simply by sitting there each day). The best way to avoid conflict is simply to leave the roof as a not particularly welcoming space, where nobody is allowed to leave personal belongings.

Athens rooftops 2

But never mind dreams of communal gardens in the sky. What about solar panels, at least?  Of course, they raise a whole new set of practical and administrative problems. And yet, Athens is graced with abundant sunshine for much of the year.

The sun, the sun. Since we’re on the topic of the sun, let me share a thought from William Cronon’s (1992) well-known history of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis (my holiday reading at the moment).  He reminds us that, while we may want to understand economic growth through labour theories of value, the real basis of capital lies not in production but in consumption – of natural resources: “In any ecosystem, only the sun produces” (150). Thus, “The abundance that fueled Chicago’s hinterland economy … consisted largely of stored sunshine: this was the wealth of nature, and no human labor could create the value it contained. Although people might use it, redefine it, and even build a city from it, they did not produce it” (149-150).

In a place where the sun bestows its value so freely, what other uses might be made of all these empty roofs? Well, if you’re rich, you can always install a swimming pool.

Kolonaki swimming pools

Rooftop swimming pools, Kolonaki

Athens, 15 August 2016



Cronon, W. (1992). Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Sejong City parkland

City centre of the future?

I’m spending a fortnight observing the birth – or at least the toddlerhood – of a brand new city. In fact, I might even be witnessing the birth of a new type of city.

But more of that later. Let’s start with some background. The city is called Sejong. It is being built on previously agricultural land in the centre of South Korea, and should house half a million people when it’s finished (2030). So far, only one neighbourhood is fully built and occupied, with around 25,000 residents. For the time being, it lacks various services, but the residents I’ve spoken to are confident that these will come in good time; on the whole, they seem very optimistic about its future.

Why build a new city? Mainly because Seoul has long been understood as too congested, with over half the country’s population living in its metro area.  The strategic policy aim, to which Sejong will contribute, is to create a more ‘balanced national development’.  In terms of industries and employment, it is hoped that Sejong will work with several other nearby R&D centres (including, most notably, the city of Daejeon) to form a hi-tech cluster.  To help it on its way, most of the country’s civil service has already been moved here – around 10,000 staff have been relocated (and not all were happy about this).

Sejong in South Korea

At ground level, Sejong might seem like a giant children’s playground – but I mean that in a good way. There are children playing and cycling everywhere, small parks and playgrounds, streams and rivers.  I like this – I can’t help agreeing with the old idea that if you design a city with children in mind, the rest will follow. I’m sure I would have loved being a child here.  The primary schools, too, are excellent, with state-of-the-art facilities.

The colossal expense of building Sejong – borne by the state – makes it unrepeatable in Korea, and unreplicable as a wholesale development model in most countries. So when I describe it as a ‘new type of city’, I’m thinking of something more specific: its ring-shaped layout.  While cities in the US have long been concerned about the ‘doughnut effect’ (whereby the city centre falls into decay and all the business and retail moves out to the suburbs), Sejong is planned deliberately not to have a city centre.  The aim is to avoid reproducing Seoul-like congestion.

How will this work?  Well, first, a frequent rapid transit bus will run all the way round the city, taking 40 minutes to do a complete loop. In theory, therefore, people can get to anywhere else in the city within 20 minutes without using a car.  At the same time, the city is not unfriendly to cars; vast underground parking garages are provided, with more than one space per household provided. As one civil servant explained to me, it is unrealistic to wish away people’s love of the car, but this way at least they also have other choices; as well as buses, the city is very cycle- and pedestrian-friendly.  Instead of a city centre, there is a lake and a large – and very beautiful – park.

Sejong City

The built part, meanwhile, is very compact (many buildings are 25 storeys tall).  The rationale for high-density urban development is of course well-established: it leads to greater resource efficiency (another central government goal, given recent power blackouts and a growing environmental conscience), and it makes services and public transport more viable and easily accessible.  Since tall residential buildings are very common in Korea already, there is no huge cultural barrier to be overcome in this respect.  On the minus side, high density development may lead to congestion at street level – especially if people still want to own and drive cars – and this congestion is most felt in the city centre.  In theory, then, the ring structure will provide all the benefits of compact living, but without the downsides.

A traditional city lover, though, might argue that congestion isn’t all bad.  Don’t we rather like our congested city centres? Okay, they may be inefficient, and lead to everyday frustrations. But doesn’t congestion create the urban ‘buzz’?  Don’t we need a critical mass of people in one place if we want things like large department stores to open?  Haven’t niche retailers and service providers traditionally been more viable in city centres?  Aren’t city centres often places where peripheral social groups can recognise fellow souls?  Where political protestors gather, so as to be visible?  From this perspective, the emphasis on mobility and ‘quality of life’ may mean that Sejong will lack ‘cityness’.

Seoul in the early evening

‘Cityness’ Korea-style: Seoul in the early evening

But I’m worried that this perspective reflects a rather narrow view of what a city should be. Perhaps ‘cityness’ is more a descriptive than a necessarily aspirational quality. It may well be the case anyway that Sejong will develop various city-like functions, but that these won’t all be in the same place.  And is it really such a big deal if Sejong only has some of the characteristics of a traditional big city?  It may not have universal appeal – the typical residents so far are married couples in their 30s with small children. But maybe we shouldn’t always assume that cities have to be all things to all people; in practice, their appeal is always constrained in some ways. People still have choices to live elsewhere, and – as one of my interviewees put it – “that’s democracy”.

But there are two possible ways, as I see it, in which the planners’ intentions may be subverted. First, a de facto centre may emerge as the city takes on its own life – perhaps in the already built (south-western) part – leaving the rest relatively isolated. More confusing, I think, is the possibility that the decentralisation of the city will simply negate the gains made by densification; paradoxically, it may end up both compact and dispersed. Can the ring-shaped city work, then, as a model for development elsewhere? Should it, as I have suggested, be thought of as a new type of city? I can only echo the words of one official that I interviewed: “we’ll see. It’s an experiment”.

old house in Sejong City

The old (one of the few remaining traditional houses in the central park area)…

The new - Sejong City 1

…and the new.

9 June 2014, Sejong City


Today, I went on a wander round Sai Wan Ho, a residential area of Hong Kong, after reading about some research conducted among the people who live there. The authors (Forrest et al., 2002) wanted to understand the nature of community and neighbourhood in such places.  Most sociological research into ‘neighbourhoods’ focuses on Europe and the US, and tends to write off the high-rise residential block as a social disaster.  But how might such housing work in entirely different contexts? Under what circumstances is the ultra-high residential block a good idea?  I don’t really know, but it’s always interesting to think about.

We sometimes see pictures like my own ones below circulating in the press and on the internet.  The commentary is always rather negative (“families squeezed into tiny cage-like apartments”; “flats no bigger than shoeboxes”; “the desperate shortage of accommodation”…)  But these criticisms, it seems to me, precisely replicate the problematic perspectives that led to them being built – with disastrous consequences – in places like Britain during the post-war period; they reduce the individuals that live in them to replicable passive components within a system.  In reality, the places I walked round today didn’t feel so awful at all.

Hong Kong, by the way, is only the world’s seventh densest urban area (for a full list, see Demographia, 2013). It differs from its competitors at the top of the league table, though, in that three-quarters of it is covered by dense forest.  There are no sprawling slums here: Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than New York City.

Anyway, here is my contribution to the photographic canon…

Sai Wan Ho Cultural Centre, Hong Kong

Hing Tung Estate, Sai Wan Ho, Hong Kong 2

Sai Wan Ho, Hong Kong 3

Hong Kong Residential Tower Blocks

Hong Kong Residential Tower Blocks

Hong Kong Residential Tower Blocks

Residential Tower Blocks in Hong Kong

Residential Tower Blocks, Hong Kong

Hong Kong high-rise residential towers

26 November 2013, Hong Kong


Demographia (2013). Demographia World Urban Areas: World Agglomerations (see p.133+). Available from:

Forrest, R., La Grange, A., & Ngai-Ming, Y. (2002). Neighbourhood in a high rise, high density city: some observations on contemporary Hong Kong. The Sociological Review. 50(2): 215-240

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