Comparing Density in Cities

LSE Cities is an ambitious project focussed on how the design of cities impacts society, culture and the environment. As part of their mandate they are releasing some visually compelling work, like the  chart below. 




I enjoy the program emphasis on highlighting the diversity of cities and built form around the world. The chart above is an excellent sample of how each cities unique topographical constraints, systems of public transport and infrastructure, and traditions of urban culture and development shape residential densities. As LSE Cities writes

Density differs widely, from the high densities of Hong Kong, Mumbai and central areas of Istanbul and Shanghai to the much lower density pattern of London. Johannesburg shows limited areas of higher density set around a downtown that no longer has a residential population, in the midst of a very low-density sprawl. Istanbul, New York and Hong Kong show how topographical constraints drive densities that rise to ‘spikes’ in Manhattan and parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens in New York, and in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon in Hong Kong. São Paulo is multi-centred and similar in its overall density pattern to Mexico City, yet São Paulo’s skyline is dominated by high-rise apartment blocks, while Mexico City’s is consistently low-rise, demonstrating that high-density can be achieved with different types of built form.

Looking forward to seeing more from LSE Cities project.


Towers and Malls

Cavendish Mall

In my last post I explored the idea that “apartments are just as lucrative in the US as Canada, but the US did not experience the same kind of suburban apartment boom.”  In trying to understand why, I pointed to planning culture  and the nature of each countries development industry. One area I didn’t explore was the difference that the municipal tax structures might have played in encouraging Canadian suburbs to go denser.

Canadian municipalities are far more reliant on property taxes. That means that one of the few ways they can collect more revenue is to grow the property tax base. Looking at the chart from Cote Saint-Luc I used in my last post, apartments made good sense as a revenue generating tool.


American municipalities do not have the same dependency on property taxes. Sales taxes are an important  revenue tool for many American cities. This means that the incentives in Canadian and American cities are different. In a study on the effect of the sales tax on development, the Public Policy Institute of California writes:

The survey results provide strong evidence that city governments do favor retail development over other land uses when developing vacant land or pursuing redevelopment.

Essentially, the sales tax made really good sense because you collected the new property tax revenue and more sales tax.  The outcome is that American municipalities encouraged and approved the development of a lot more retail instead of apartments than Canadian cities. So perhaps our municipal tax structures can help explain why generally Canadian cities were more favourable to suburban apartments, and the American cities to more retail.


Source: The International Council of Shopping Centers via ForeXLive