Conceptualising urban density, energy demand and social practice.

Rinkinen, Jenny and Shove, Elizabeth and Smits, Mattijs (2021) Conceptualising urban density, energy demand and social practice. Buildings and Cities, 2 (1). pp. 79-91. ISSN 2632-6655

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In urban studies and in energy policy there is much debate about the relationship between energy demand and the density of residential areas, measured in units such as those of population/ha or population/km2. A different approach is presented in this paper. Rather than evaluating the relative merits of compact or sprawling urban forms, the focus is on the spatial configuration of the infrastructures, appliances and systems of provision on which city life depends. An interview-based study of households living in the same extremely ‘dense’ neighbourhood in Hanoi, Vietnam, shows how practices of cooling, laundering and cooking (and the energy demands associated with these practices) are shaped by material arrangements that exist within the home and that also stretch far beyond. The conclusion that supply and demand are constituted across multiple spatial scales has practical implications for urban design, and for how the relation between energy demand and density is defined and understood. PRACTICE RELEVANCE Energy demand is a consequence of how social practices are distributed and organised across space and time. By contrast, metrics of density can be counter-productive and tend to obscure potentially crucial questions regarding the constitution and the transformation of energy demand. A practical approach is presented to conceptualise relations between material arrangements and energy demands at different scales: from the layout of the home to more extensive infrastructures and systems of provision. The implications of these ideas can influence debates about urban density and design by focusing attention on infrastructures, appliances and the layout of the spaces that influence how they are actually used, and for the practices they accommodate and enable.

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Journal Article
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Buildings and Cities
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02 Feb 2021 12:30
Last Modified:
17 Sep 2023 02:58