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Urban density, urban intensity

5' read - published June, 16th 2022

Density has been discussed at length. On the one hand, city dwellers see their cities becoming denser when small buildings are replaced by larger ones, when empty spaces are filled, etc. On the other hand, renewal within the city is necessary and, as we will read in this article, the densest cities are sometimes the most livable.

We will explore together what the right density can be, and how to build dense and desirable. We will also look at how win-win situations can be fostered for builders, public authorities and residents alike.

For a quick overview of the innovations related to density and intensity, we invite you to click here.

What is density, and why it does not tell us everything ?

Density is the size of the population that occupies a portion of land. The most commonly used measures in urban planning and real estate are: 1. The number of dwellings per hectare, or 2. the population per square kilometer.

Unfortunately, density is often misunderstood. For example, height of buildings is not necessarily a good indicator of density. Some concrete cases: When measuring population density, Paris is 3 times denser than New York, and Barcelona is 2.5 times denser than Tokyo.



46'178 hab/km2


20'680 hab/km2


20'545 hab/km2


16'576 hab/km2


7'250 hab/km2


6'511 hab/km2

Density of some cities in number of inhabitants per square kilometer, source Wikipedia 2022

From density to intensity, by adding quality

Imagine having a picnic in a park in the middle of summer, by the water and in the shade of a big tree. You are not the only one enjoying this moment, other people around you are doing the same. Now, imagine the same thing: A picnic, in a green space of the same surface, with the same number of people around you, but it is a motorway rest area. The moment is suddenly less pleasant. Yet, it is the same density of people.

In short, density reflects a quantity and never a quality. However, at the inhabitant level, it is quality that makes them feel at ease. So what is urban intensity? Urban intensity is density, to which a qualitative dimension is added by taking into account the user's experience (1). Urban intensity is not decided, it is a project result that one would like to achieve.


Urban intensity is born of the capacity to produce encounters in the city, daily events in a given space. Whatever the scale of the project, when we think of it through the prism of urban intensity, we are led to put the user's experience at the heart of our concerns. We are then able to produce a dense and desirable city - A clear win-win for real estate developers as well as public authorities and inhabitants.

Some concrete examples of designing with quality and intensity

What happens when you add residential buildings to a business district? The district comes alive, instead of being animated from 8am to 8pm on weekdays, it is alive 24/7. This is what is done at La Défense in Paris with block 19. Residents and employees will cross paths in a space of urban intensity. Similarly, the mixed programming of the Saunalahti school intensifies the use of the building, which is open after school and on weekends as a neighborhood hall. It becomes a meeting place for the new neighborhood.

The DeDakkas bar in Haarlem is installed on the roof of a parking lot, thus offering an unobstructed view of the city and intensifying the use of the building. The parking lot is no longer just for motorists. Finally, a construction project in the residual spaces of La Défense is underway in Paris. This will diversify uses in the district and create more encounters, making it more pleasant to live in for its residents and workers.

In their public policies related to development, cities are also putting the user experience at the heart of their concerns. With its Superblocks, Barcelona has decided to exclude cars from certain parts of the dense city. Thus making the city pleasant to live in and creating meeting places. In London, the "Healthy Streets" guideline guides all actors in the construction of a pedestrian-friendly public space. Here again, public space becomes the place for encounters.

Building dense and desirable: How to create win-win projects for the developer, the city and the citizen

Let's explore some examples in the city center, less populated city areas and peri-urban areas.

In the city-center, the Haussmannian block, which is characteristic in Paris, has been identified as one of the densest forms in the world. However, this morphology is hardly questioned by those who live there. Two main constructive qualities have allowed these buildings to survive over the years:

  • the buildings are shallow (7 to 13 meters), which allows for double or triple orientation of the dwellings

  • the high ceilings (3 meters minimum) allow for more natural light and ventilation, and the possibility of varying the use of the space between housing and activity over the years.


In addition, in these blocks the voids do not surround the buildings but are enclosed by them to create courtyards. The intimacy of these curved spaces is perfectly suited to the scale of the pedestrian and, where they have sufficient surface area, the courtyards could be connected to the public space. A great example of this is the "Beyond the Street" project proposed in New York. By opening inner-courtyards to the public in favour of quality public space, developers would gain space to build in height. Thus creating a win-win for all parties.

By working on the optimization of spaces inside residences, it is possible to produce dense blocks while preserving the quality of apartments. For example, the French developer Cogedim is committed to optimising its apartments by creating office corners with only 2 or 3 square meters. Micro-apartments can also be imagined to take advantage of residual surfaces. These apartments must be custom designed and furnished to remain pleasant to live in.

Less populated city areas can be used to realize the ultimate dream of residents: Living in a single-family home in the city. This is what the architects Bouillaud and Donnadieu have done at La Plaine Méo in Lille, with 57 individual houses built on the former wasteland. With half-heights and embankments they made it possible to limit the view on the neighbors, as the private exterior spaces are crucial for a good quality of life. The conditions of urban intensity are set, and density is then well experienced.

In peri-urban areas, the BIMBY (for "build in my backyard") project method imported from North America is already bearing fruit in Europe. In France, the company Ville Vivantes is fully developing this process. Their project method, in consultation with the inhabitants, allows peri-urban cities to densify their territory without virulent opposition. Here again, densification is accepted because the users are put at the center of the reflection. They themselves envisage the densification of their plot of land, with the help of an architect provided by the municipality.

Still in peri-urban and close suburban areas, mixed-use projects can easily be created. These projects alone set the conditions for urban intensity. This is the case of the Blue House co-housing in Detroit, which allows several households to live on a piece of land where only one would traditionally have been housed. The Factory Roof Houses project in Oudenaarde creates urban intensity in a different way, by adding housing on the roof of a wood storage hall in a craftsman's area. The derogation was obtained from the government, because this area is located close to the city center and is therefore suitable for housing.

What to build ?

All these projects create urban intensity. They are dense constructions, profitable for the developers, desired by the public authorities, and desirable for the citizens. Because we put the user experience at the heart of the development, everyone wins.

(1) Flora Charmeau, De la densité à l'intensité urbaine: étude de cas sur Toulouse, November 5th 2015.


Other ressources: 

Demain la ville, Et si on parlait de densité urbaine ?, October 9th 2017.

Le Monde, L'urbanisme du Paris d'Haussmann, modèle pour la ville durable ?, February 1st 2017

Géoconfluences, Densité, visited June 2021

Notes & sources
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