The Bartlett School of Planning


Vafa Dianati

Research subject

The Dynamics of Place Attachment and Perceived Density; Exploring the Impact of Urban Densification on Social Sustainability in Tehran.

Primary supervisor: Dr Catalina Turcu
Secondary supervisor: Dr Michael Short
Starting date: January 2016
Projected completion date: January 2020
Email: vafa.maleki.15@ucl.ac.uk

Within sustainability discourses, the link between urban density and the social dimension of sustainable development has received much attention. Both density and social sustainability have a great deal of ambiguity in definition, connotation and implication, which has resulted in the emergence of a myriad of controversies around their relationship. In recent decades, a growing body of literature has maintained its focus on the potential impact of different levels of urban density on the social sustainability of urban communities (Bramley et al., 2009; Dempsey et al., 2011; Raman, 2010). However, the empirical findings emerging from these studies are inconsistent and, in some cases, contradictory. Although there is general agreement that high urban density improves social equity by producing equal access to job opportunities, services etc. (Burton, 2010), dense urban areas have received criticism for negatively impacting place attachment and community satisfaction (Bramley et al., 2009; Dave, 2011).

The present research seeks to unravel the complexities in the relationship between urban densification and social sustainability at the neighbourhood level in Tehran, Iran. Theoretically, this research is founded upon three key pillars. (1) The concept of place serves as the theoretical backbone of this research by linking density and social sustainability. Place refers to a complex phenomenon, shaped by a dialectical relationship between social and physical realms and deeply interwoven with human experience and perception (Malpas, 1999). (2) Perceived density centres on the unique way each person understands and experiences urban density on the ground (Alexander, 1993; Rapoport, 1975), and its two core elements, perceived spatial density and perceived social density, identify it (Bergdoll & Williams, 1990). Lastly, (3) urban social sustainability acts as a relative, place-based and locally rooted concept studied at the micro-level of the neighbourhood. Accordingly, people-place relationships or place attachment acts as the crucial element of urban social sustainability (Colantonio, 2007; Omann & Spangenberg, 2002). Place attachment is the affective and cognitive bond between people and their surrounding built environment (Hidalgo & Hernandez, 2001).

The potential contributions of this thesis are twofold. First, this research will contribute to the existing knowledge by introducing a framework for understanding the relationship between urban density and social sustainability by emphasising the importance of the subjective knowledge of the urbanites. The framework also highlights the relatively overlooked importance of urban neighbourhood as a place in the formation of urban experience. Second, the present research may have imperative policy contributions. The  findings will inform city planners and policymakers in Tehran about the concealed consequences of the current urban transformation trend in the city with the hope that sufficient measures enter the policymaking process to create neighbourhoods that work for their residents. Moreover, by comprehensively investigating the planning system in Tehran and its loopholes, this research will provide a set of recommendations for the urban governance and management structure to ensure the sustainability of the future developments.


Vafa is a PhD researcher at the Bartlett School of Planning under the supervision of Dr. Catalina Turcu and Dr. Michael Short. His research investigates the relationship between perceived density and place attachment in Tehran by emphasising the significance of neighbourhood as a place. Vafa received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Architecture in Iran. During his studies, he has collaborated with a wide range of architectural and design practices in Iran as an intern and junior designer. His other research interests include social housing policy in Iran, the political economy of urban transformation, space and place scholarship and Marxist urban theory.