Objective Measure or Critical Tool of the Neoliberal Agenda?


  • Claire Harper Newcastle University



The publication of the planning agenda Towards an Urban Renaissance in 1999 marked a turning point in the approach towards urban development in the UK and specifically towards urban density. Density was attributed with a range of physical, environmental and social implications, or at least potentialities. Most significant of these was the association of high urban densities with more sustainable, socially diverse, compact urban models – a positive affiliation that lead to the introduction of minimum density ratios for new urban developments and the gradual introduction of density ratios as a component of development briefs for new urban housing.

Elaborating a potted history of architects’ use and manipulation of density ratios, I argue that density has been a critical and effective instrument of the neoliberal agenda.  In its capacity to operate as both crude economic measure, and at the same time, qualitative descriptor of the urban experience, density has been a key device in rebranding urban living. In this article, I expound the role that architects have had in negotiating this duality, reviving an image of density that has been essential to its operation as a device for facilitating capital growth.

Author Biography

Claire Harper, Newcastle University

Claire Harper is an architect and educator.  Her research interests focus on the design of housing, residential landscapes and the procurement systems in which they are cultivated.  Her doctoral thesis, Compaction, scale and proximity: an investigation into the spatial implications of density for the design of new urban housing, presented a critique of the dominance of quantitative measures in housing design and was shortlisted for the RIBA President’s Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis in 2015. As a practitioner, she has worked for architectural practices in the Netherlands and England (London and the North East) and currently runs a small design studio alongside her teaching and research.


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