The compact city: a new urban model?

Published by on 01.17.2020 - 4 min

In terms of energy savings and environmental conservation, all-consuming urban sprawl has shown its limitations. Here’s where the idea of the compact city comes in. But what exactly is this new urban model?

What is a compact city?

In the report, Compact City Policies: A Comparative Assessment, the OECD states that “[…] the key characteristics of a compact city are dense and proximate development patterns, built-up areas linked by public transport systems, and accessibility to local services and jobs.” In other words, a compact city is denser and brings together all the needs of citizens (housing, work, services) in the same place. This intense use of space aims to limit the city’s encroachment on agricultural and natural spaces, account for residents’ transportation needs and optimize energy consumption.

The compact city is struggling to make a place for itself amongst the vast urban spread which, since the middle of the twentieth century, has been growing faster than the general population. This fragmentation has led to widespread use of cars and significant costs for the development and maintenance of infrastructure: roads, water, gas, telephone lines, electricity, waste collection, etc.

The different characteristics of a compact city

Dense residential spaces mean a more intensive use of space with grouped housing versus individual houses with yards. Contrary to natural spaces, urban agglomerations are close together with clearly-defined boundaries. Mobility depends mainly on a robust public transportation system. The variety and concentration of services in a delineated area (jobs, supermarkets, restaurants, medical services, schools, etc.) makes them accessible, for the most part, by foot or bicycle.

Amsterdam: an example of a compact city in Europe

Amsterdam compact city

The Netherlands is the perfect example of integrating the principles of a compact city into urban planning. The goal? To fight against the decline of cities and the exodus of the middle class to the suburbs. New housing has been developed on urban wastelands, and old or abandoned buildings have been rehabilitated or transformed for a new mixed use (residential or commercial), such as the abandoned eastern port area in Amsterdam. Since 2011, the city has turned to building higher and higher in order to make up for the lack of space. New office buildings are popping up in locations that are well served by public transportation in order to prioritize housing.

The place of the electric car in the compact city

With greater density, mobility in a compact city is essential to limit the traffic and pollution caused by driving. While the compact city is designed to encourage the use of public transportation, biking and walking, electric and shared mobility provide additional travel means, all while limiting certain concerns (CO2 emissions, noise, volume of traffic) and respecting new city center regulations. This direction is increasingly being adopted by cities and eco-districts where electric carsharing services are flourishing, like Madrid, Utrecht, Amsterdam and Paris. It’s a complete and accessible solution for everyone that promotes intermodality and ensures sustainable freedom of movement.

The growing population and the increase in online shopping also raises the question of a city’s supply chain. “zero emission*” electric utility vehicles are already finding their place in today’s urban ecosystem, particularly for last-mile deliveries. In France, new innovative projects like Chapelle International, a new urban and logistics district in the north of Paris, have integrated this thinking from the get-go by coupling freight and electric vehicles. This project will create a 45,000 m2 logistics hotel with the capacity to accommodate two trains each day, the equivalent of 40 semi-trailers bringing supplies to the capital. The main logistics are centralized in this space so that clean vehicles can take over supplying the rest of the city.

new zoe in compact city

A “compact” city or a “sustainable” city?

By bringing all the necessary daily services that residents need into close proximity and by densifying the space, the compact city boasts reduced travel time and alternative means of transport, making it possible to pool development investment into cities and ensure the protection of natural areas, all in a model of sustainable urbanization. A compact city is therefore a sustainable city. Does this mean that a sustainable city necessarily compact? The two ideas do seem to go hand-in-hand.

In 2050, cities will house nearly 70% of the world’s population and the compact city will play a significant role in urban policies to balance this influx of inhabitants while preserving natural resources.


*Neither atmospheric emissions of CO2 nor pollutants while driving (excluding wear parts)

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