The Unique Cooperation of Density and Identity in Populated Cities

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The essay in question explores the relationship between the inevitable subjective character of identity and the objective desire for density in the modern and present city. It starts by looking at the etymological origins of the home itself and compares it with our current perception in present times. Density, usually the main culprit against a sense of belonging, is being questioned and analysed through the lenses of our psychology and with help from case studies of high-density areas around the world.

Usually, the unique character of identity of a place is greatly associated with the detached housing. In this form, the dwellers relationship with his house is intensely explored, resulting in housing that transcends a simple building and infuses the notion of home. It goes further to explore the possibility of a balance between the instinct to treat our lodgings in a manner more in theme with Bachelard’s vision of the intimate spaces in our homes and the limitations which are imposed upon us in the context of the wider cityscape, transforming us into Toyo Ito’s “urban nomads”. The essay concludes with a call for architecture that better mitigates the balance between density and identity. Collective housing is given a special place in this essay, as it's the most disputed and affects the majority of people living in cities, especially in Romania, with its vast legacy of social housing from our last 100 years.


Home is one of the most basic and widely known words, yet it still carries within a deep meaning that's as different and as vast as there are people on Earth. The transition from a simple construction, a building or a house to a home is a personal journey that we all inevitably go through. It's a process with and within the physical space over a long period of time, along which the home becomes a microverse, a world within a world, claimed by the presence of elements and actions, overlapped with deep feelings. Looking back to its origins, etymologically the word which conveys the closest meaning is found in the form of the Old English noun, hamm, as being 'a piece of pasture land; enclosure; house'. There is a distinction to be noted between hamm and ham, the latter representing at its core a village, marking a perceived shift of perspective from home seen as an abode, to a larger scale.

Instead, hamm is referred as a place smaller than a ham, smaller than a city or a village, yet the connection between them is still there. However we look at it, 'home' still returns to us the idea of a village or pastured land, owned by a community, an open place to the members of the community that is their principal source for peace and pleasure.

Today's modern cities have diverged from the idea of home as our community, instead being mostly associated with privately owned units that can't independently meet our complex human needs as social beings. Density seems to be the main culprit for us lacking a sense of place, yet our sense of identity and belonging are far more complex and affected by more than that.


A first step towards finding a metaphorical cure for the ailment represented by density - and thus allowing us to envision a healthy scenario for high-density living; where we are not only satisfying our basic needs, but addressing all the layers of Maslow’s pyramid - lays in properly identifying the potential risks and limitations of such a context and understanding the underlying psychological impact upon us, as social beings. The key to designing a city that could evoke both a sense of belonging and of identity within a community depends upon finding a balance - providing space enough to both encourage social behavior and allow intimacy.

An important parallel regarding social behaviour in high-density cities and a basis for the second part of this work is conveyed by a study which took place post Second World War, in the context of the cities being rebuilt at a concerning rate. The study was conducted by the ethnologist John B. Calhoun, presenting what was later coined as the “behavioural sink” resulted from overcrowding rats in a controlled environment. In an enclosed setting where food and safety would be provided, a pair of Norwegian rats were put under surveillance over several years. Although in the given time, the population could have reached numbers as high as 50.000, the rats stabilised naturally at around 150 individuals.

Not only that, but the enclosure seemed to become divided following a social structure in a dozen groups of about 12 rats, which facilitated the security of pregnant females and newly delivered mothers, as well as a safe, manageable environment to suport the youthful. “It was as if somehow this society of rats was able collectively to control its population at some ideal level.”, was stated as a conclusion. Furthermore, the crucial nature of this organically devised ratio between the number of inhabitants and the surface available was made abundantly clear in the next stage of the study, when the population was doubled artificially. The balance and structure broke in a manifestation of violence, inability to complete the construction of nests, an unsafe environment for the females, ultimately terminating in abortions - this was the “behavioural sink”.

'Many [female rats] were unable to carry pregnancy to full term or to survive delivery of their litters if they did. [...] fell short in their maternal functions. Among the males the behavior disturbances ranged from sexual deviation to cannibalism and from frenetic overactivity to a pathological withdrawal from which individuals would emerge to eat, drink and move about only when other members of the community were asleep. The social organization of the animals showed equal disruption. [...] In the experiments in which the behavioral sink developed, infant mortality ran as high as 96 percent among the most disoriented groups in the population'. The conclusion of the “behavioural sink” seen during the social collapse of the rats presents an evident parallel with the behaviour displayed in our society when improper density management results in overcrowding - there needs to be a minimal amount of space in which to create structure. However, in the journey towards creating a healthy society and a prosperous environment, Calhoun’s density experiment provides just one of the multiple layers to be considered.

Going a step above density, the sense of community and belonging in said healthy society is achieved also by the degree to which space allows for social interaction and the level of permeability between such spaces and the personal ones. This dynamic is illustrated more in regions with a hot tropical climate - such as Southeast Asia, compared to our temperate climate in Europe or North America, where the architecture came to blur the lines between inside and outside in an organic manner. A case study is provided by the way of living in traditional Kampong villages in Malaysia, where the architectural lexicon is based on permeable structures, overhangs and open verandas which become communal spaces - thus providing the context for closely knit communities and a general sense of togetherness. The traditional pavillionar architecture, however, was not a sustainable approach in the context of the XX century densification process, as seen punctually in the case of Singapore, where the Western architectural lexicon bleeds through.

The time of the high rise building being in full ascension, so was the criminality, and as a reaction, multiple studies and points of view were trying to pinpoint the cause. The general conclusions in multiple case studies ultimately disproved as definite causes both the density and the height of the buildings - the problem was the ambiguous neutral space separating the indoors from the outdoors which wasn’t claimed by anyone: the unsupervised indoor circulation spaces, infamous “streets in the air”. Thus, the focus needed to shift towards a more aware approach in regards to the design of the building itself and the lack of communal spaces - a clue to the lost architectural lexicon of permeability in the case of Kampung village and their sense of community and belonging.

On the other side, the aspect of intimacy was misunderstood as well, most of the time resulting in isolation and antisocial behaviour. Rather, the architecture should implement in its design platforms which offer control over the amount and type of social interaction, not exclude it all together. Especially in the context of high-density, it is crucial to be able to create and operate hierarchical social contact, based on territoriality. Design wise, the problem resorts back to spatial geometry, and the ability to work within parameters of private, public, and semi-public spaces - essential additions to the Western architectural lexic.

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'All this evidence appears to suggest a number of important lessons for planners, architects and the makers of policy in high-density cities. Firstly the pure statistical ratio of people per unit area does not seem to be the most important factor in determining how people feel about living in high-density cities. It is what is in these places and how space is designed that matters. It is much more a matter of design than of statistics. Arranging space to create a feeling of retreat and privacy both within homes and in the public domain is likely to have very positive outcomes. [...] While density itself then is perhaps not the key issue here it remains true that the higher the density the harder we have to work to design our cities in such a way that they remain pleasant and fulfilling places in which to live. It is certainly true that the closer their proximity the greater potential people have to annoy one another.'


Usually, the unique character of identity of a place is greatly associated with the detached housing. In this form, the dwellers relationship with his house is intensely explored, resulting in housing that transcends a simple building and infuses the notion of home. Judging by the relationship with the interior or exterior, houses tend to become either “Endo” – focusing primarily on the interior and personal vision of reality, “Exo-near” – extending the connection with the outside world, also seen as a technological “prosthesis”, and “Exo-far” – which takes in the adjacent landscape and interacts with it.

In the context of densification within the city, the housing units are becoming more and more restrictive and thus unfit as a place in which to define our identity. This manifests in a tendency to extend our living space beyond the micro-apartments to the scale of the city, at the cost of our sense of self and of our ability to control the environment in which we live.

It's only normal that people would need a place that can rejuvenate whenever they leave their apartments. 'They cannot be relegated to hanging out in a shopping mall or having to pay for a cup of coffee to use the internet'. A lack of public services in its vicinity - green space and good public spaces pose a threat to people's health. This phenomenon, defined by Toyo Ito as the behaviour of an urban nomad, deprives the individual of a feeling of consistency, cutting his sense of belonging inside a personal timeline, sense that would be provided by an intimate expression of identity within the home. In the context of urban alienation it becomes crucial to have a safe place called home that goes beyond functionality and helps us feel centered and whole.

“While expressing who we are, the home should – at the same time – reinforce who we are”, the home and its inhabitants mutually shaping one another in a continuous dialogue. The act of living could be viewed as a personal way of occupying the space. An act of forging a space that embodies both the dwelling and its inhabitants. Home is therefore an expression of our own existence in space.

'We live the world as we live our home' - Martin Buber

In regards with the sense of identity, a home of our own making resonates with us on a deeply intimate level by providing a sense of continuity in time, a kind of physical biographical manifestation as defined in Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. A well defined personal timeline, meaningful belongings, a contribution to the shaping of the inhabited space and happy times with loved ones, as well as feelings of inclusion in the local community - all play a decisive part in the attachment to our home. Simply put, the emotional value of a home could be described as follows: “Effort put in to home + Good experiences + Feeling of security – Bad times in home = Emotional Added Value”.

A Different Approach

'Building collective housing, especially public collective housing, as if it were our own house, as a reflection of ourselves and our desires, is a heroic act which only true architects, those who think like users, are capable of. This involves making the developer's programme of requirements coincide with the user's wish list or better still, anticipate the latter's desires and improve on them. And all this within the city we already have, rebuilding it, filling in the voids, sharing the space and cutting down on distances. Our home is now in the city which is compacted and mixed up, which grows inwards and is renewed.

We are returning to the historic city, to the modern city, to the post-industrial city, we are re-densifying the expansive city of the last decade. We are regenerating the narrow plots of the medieval urban grids, the 19th Century urban expansions and the old new-towns of the 60s. We are returning to the built-up city driven by the need to save on resources but this return cannot be a reluctant one. Need must be converted into desire and we will only achieve this by turning housing into home and each home into our home.'

Architectural psychology brings forth the argument for an architecture and architect more humble and in tune with the complex needs of the inhabitants, both as individuals and as a community. This calls for a new approach to design, one that is more sensible and inclusive towards its future inhabitants. A sense of home cannot be reproduced, however, receptivity to the context and the social and psychological aspects hold the promise of a more qualitative and community based architecture. A prototype of this more responsible and assumed approach manifests itself in Baugruppe projects, apartment buildings which highly promote the premise of participative design.

Specifically, the sense of home is attained firstly on a psychological level by the premise of the families making a willing decision to be a part of and play a role in the community and by the participative nature of the decision making process. Design wise, the approach is centered around shared and public spaces which function as social cores. Mix-use is also present, which along with green and open spaces creates a canvas for urban interaction. Furthermore, the experimental nature of the projects allows for more involvement from the community in regards with the exploration of new technologies and environmental sustainability. Working towards shifting the meaning of home back to its wider and more complex origin as the old hamm - the land of the community, an open place and source for peace and pleasure - the Baugruppe and other similarly minded design strategies bring forth ideals of social inclusion and collaboration.

'In the compact city life piles up and is compressed between other lives. We don't have a staircase going down to the cellar or up to the attic but we do have lifts which can take us up above the trees. It is true that we have nearly abandoned the heroic effort of the staircase, but on the other hand we have leveled out our abilities. Life in the dense city cannot be based on relinquishing but on rewarding. Privacy does not flee from collective housing, as Gaston Bachelard feared, because of its horizontal nature. Privacy does not vanish up through the lift shaft but through the narrow entrance galleries, through the inadequate acoustic insulation, through the unsheltered terraces. Each house should still be seen by the user as his or her corner of the world, where the other is neither a threat to daily rest nor the spectator of household activities. Privacy is not lessened by common spaces but by inadequate common spaces, lethal for the dignity of people and buildings.'

'And neither is it true that city houses have no memory. They will have a memory if they are built with the precision of the nest and the discretion of the burrow, with the austerity of the shack and the generosity of the palace. They will have a memory if sleeping areas can become bedrooms, kitchens hearths and balconies courtyards. They will have a memory if they adjust to our bodies and our desires and stretch and shrink with us, if they have windows which the world fits through and walls which shelter us from the hostile weather. They will have a memory because we will leave our signs there, through subtle invisible details which will end up dominating and appropriating the space. They will be our homes and they will remain in the memory of those born in them. They will always be their childhood, interwoven with a neighbourhood in a congested lively city.'

We need to reconsider the way we plan our cities, by switching up the old elements with the new vocabulary and technologies, embracing the vertical in the context of densification not as a threat for isolation but an opportunity to design stacked, well functional and sensible hamms, inhabited by well functional and sensible communities with a vibrant sense of identity and belonging.

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