Conference paper
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This short, exploratory paper reviews the concept of urban density from a historical and sociological perspective to identify how this idea has been deployed in Western urban planning thought and practice and the social conditions in which particular perceptions of density emerged and what their social and policy effects were. We hope that this research will strengthen planning debate in Australia and elsewhere, in part by questioning whether density is as much an artefact as a determinant of other urban social processes such as struggles over the form and structure of cities.

We hope that by providing a critical, socially informed perspective on urban density that we begin to signpost a path out of the currently intractable division in Australian planning debates between those who consider an increase in urban densities to be essential to the achievement of urban sustainability and those for whom densification marks a departure from this ideal. As Davison has warned, planning risks becoming ‘stuck in a cul-de-sac’ if is unable to reconcile or reformulate the struggle over density and move towards a more constructive and broadened form of engagement with urban challenges. However, we do not seek to resolve this intellectual and policy conundrum by arguing in favour of a particular density regime. Rather we wish to demonstrate three things:

1. the social and historical conditioning of debate about density, in combination with equivocal scientific evidence about the influence of density on human environments, renders deeply problematical any deterministic approach to urban form;

2. in view of the above, that the influence of density cannot be measured or forecast in a manner isolated from context: density is one dimension of a complex ensemble of conditions and activities that shape particular urban contexts in unique ways;

3. that the emphasis dedicated to urban density in Australian planning schemes both historically and in the present, neglects or underestimates the environmental and social significance of other urban conditions and activities and thus risks diverting conceptual and practical energies away from potentially more fruitful avenues for the achievement of sustainability.


The State of Australian Cities (SOAC) national conferences have been held biennially since 2003 to support interdisciplinary policy-related urban research.

This paper was presented at SOAC 3 held in Adelaide from 28 to 30 November 2007.

SOAC 3 was jointly hosted by the University of South Australia, the University of Adelaide and Flinders University.

Themes and Key Persons

SOAC 3 focused on the contemporary form and structure of Australian cities.
The conference proceedings were grouped into six key sub-themes, each the focus of one of more conference sessions:

City Economy - economic change and labour market outcomes of globalisation, land use pressures, changing employment locations.

Social City – including population, migration, immigration, polarisation, equity and disadvantage, housing issues, recreation.

City Environment - sustainable development, management and performance, natural resource management, limits to growth, impacts of air, water, climate, energy consumption, natural resource uses, conservation, green space.

City Structures – the emerging morphology of the city – inner suburbs, middle suburbs, the CBD, outer suburbs and the urban-rural fringe, the city region.

City Governance – including taxation, provision of urban services, public policy formation, planning, urban government, citizenship and the democratic process.

City Infrastructure – transport, mobility, accessibility, communications and IT, and other urban infrastructure provision.

Paper Review Process

Conference papers published from SOAC 3 were produced through a process of integrated peer review.

There were originally 147 abstracts proposed, 143 were invited to submit papers and 107 papers were finally published.

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