Denser cities can be better cities

EMMA SHEPHERDSON is an urban planner and social sustainability specialist for the company Living Cities, working in diverse contexts like Iraq, Latin America and Sweden. She lives with her family in Stockholm – in an apartment. 

RETURNING home to WA after 10 years abroad, I see Fremantle with new eyes.

From my middle-ring suburban apartment in Stockholm, Sweden, I looked forward to seeing the change and growth in the city, as signalled by the Medium Density Housing Code. 

I thought: Maybe we will have a denser city with well-designed, more energy efficient multi-residential housing, seamless public transport and vibrant public spaces. Maybe our attitude to how we live in apartments is starting to turn. 

But Freo is not Stockholm. And nor should it be – what works in an icy Scandinavian city is not necessarily going to work in other places. 

But I want to fly the flag for the positives of a denser city and lend my ‘icy Scandinavian’ perspective to the discussion.  

Many of us can agree on what a vibrant place or streetscape looks like – a mix of different people and activities, a mix of services and meeting places, both commercial and public, passive surveillance or ‘eyes on the street’, shops and cafes that spill out onto the sidewalk.

We would like to see less traffic and safe, separated walking and cycle paths connecting to efficient and safe public transport that takes you quickly to where you want to be. 

But, in order to make this liveable, vibrant local area viable, we need to have a density of residents that live within a short radius. 

This is where medium and higher density housing comes in. 

Denser urban areas can be a good thing. It can mean public life. 

It can mean meeting your neighbours, being close to the services you need, a robust public transport system and using our urban green areas more effectively. 

Without the denser population it is harder to achieve these things. 

And yes, children can grow up in apartments! 

However, a denser city does come with some challenges. 

It needs to be better designed and thought through. 


And with medium and higher density; I don’t mean skyscrapers, I mean well-designed, human-scale buildings spread evenly across a local area and connecting to well-planned and well-used public spaces and parks. 

The Danish city architect Jan Gehl describes this human scale as a way to create cities for people.  

Human scale is multi-residential developments with three to five storeys with active facades and variation of materials. 

Windows and balconies are placed to encourage interaction with the street. 

This is the most common scale where I live in Stockholm: Bauhaus apartment buildings of four or five storeys built in the post-war period that spread evenly across the central and middle ring suburbs.

After four storeys you lose the ability to interact with the ground level and thereby lose the human scale – it becomes harder to recognise faces or speak to the person on the ground.  

How the streetscape is formed can also make our denser cities better places to be. 

For people to feel safe and have the opportunity to meet their neighbours, entrances shouldn’t be hidden and should face onto streets or parks. 

Streets with trees and greenery, separated and safe bikepaths and footpaths and interesting facades and landscaping along the street can create a pleasant environment that encourages people to walk or cycle, meaning there is more opportunity for human interaction. 

Interesting elements at the eye level like art, niches or building features can engage people 

and encourage interaction (not forgetting that eye levels are different for different people and different ages!). 

The street’s microclimate can also play a part in how people use a space in different seasons – is there shade from the summer sun and protection from the rain or wind? 

How will the street work in the dark or different seasons?

How will different people of all ages, genders and backgrounds access the street safely? 

With denser living, the common spaces and outdoor areas become central to safety and wellbeing, allowing for passive surveillance and interaction. 

The courtyard or front porch at the entrance of the building becomes an important meeting space with places to sit, play or meet your neighbours. 

We don’t have a garden in Stockholm but we can keep an eye on our children playing in the urban forest patch from our first floor balcony, which is not so different to having a private garden in terms of function. 

We often sit on the front steps and chat with neighbours while the kids scoot around the front.  

Apartments can be flexible and well-designed for different families and different living arrangements, with simple additions that make all the difference to apartment life. 

A great example is the guest apartment that my parents stay in for a few weeks when they visit from Australia, giving them their own space for a nominal per-night fee, and saving me for the need for a spare room. 

Or there’s the generous shared laundry that means I don’t need to use half the loungeroom for drying space. 

Good cellar storage means I can keep my toboggans and winter clothes down there during summer and save space in the hall. 

Paint furniture

And then there is the workshop room that replaces the need for a shed on those occasions you want to paint furniture or repair a chair.  

Fremantle has a really interesting journey ahead. 

So the conversation I want to start is can we see the positives in creating a new denser city in your local area? 

What would you need to want to live in a denser city as the population grows? 

The City of Fremantle is undergoing a major review of its Strategic Community Plan and is encouraging the community to join the conversation.

‘Let’s Talk, Freo’ encourages residents, visitors and all people with a passion for Fremantle to have their say across a range of important issues affecting the city’s future.

The Strategic Community Plan (SCP) is the City’s future blueprint and provides an overarching outline of priorities, aspirations and expectations over a 10-year period. Living in your local area is just one theme being explored.

Visit to find out more and get involved.

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