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Living in Tall Buildings – what can we learn from the rest of the world? Global Teleprescence co-hosted by NLA, Social Life and Cisco - 15/4/2014

© Michelle Haywood
What kind of lessons can London learn from other cities in the world where living in tall buildings is more the norm?

A special teleconference session co-hosted by NLA, Social Life and Cisco, connecting London practitioners with experts in Hong Kong, Singapore and Copenhagen last week sought to find out. 

Sketching the background to London’s relatively new-found interest in building tall, Gerald Maccreanor of Maccreanor Lavington Architects said that most people today feel that London is becoming more dense. But in fact levels have decreased ‘enormously’ since the 1880s and ‘we’ve forgotten how busy our cities used to be.’ Our urban footprint – the amount of public space each inhabitant uses – has also increased from 20 sqm per inhabitant in the 1650s to over 160 sqm per inhabitant today, partly because activities in the public realm have changed from ‘necessary’ to recreational.  London’s heritage has ‘moulded’ the places in which tall buildings are allowed in London and makes it feel a ‘unique’ place. But, said Maccreanor, the way that tall buildings meet the street is perhaps their most important feature, with buildings like New York’s 1930s Rockefeller Center being good examples of where the public realm has formed a key part.

Adviser and former Peabody Trust development director Dickon Robinson questioned whether we in the UK have learnt from the mistakes of the 1960s in building tall for housing, and that we need to move away from the ‘emotional baggage that surrounds the whole area’ toward a more rational approach. Part of the problem in the 1960s, added architect Fred Pilbrow, was that the quality of public realm was very poor, with ‘abject public spaces’ and a lack of investment in the worst examples. Robinson agreed, saying that the architect often got blamed for problems caused from other sources. But building tall is inherently more expensive, which ‘bites hard’ when it comes to 30-year refurbishment costs and fuels Robinson’s big fear that this ‘is not a model for providing affordable housing’. With five million people on UK local authority waiting lists wanting affordable housing, ‘It’s hard to see how the current programme of high-rise development in London is going to contribute to solving that’, said Robinson. ‘We’re going to end up with social exclusiveness highlighted in this place as never before.’

In Hong Kong, the attitude to building tall residential towers is a necessarily pragmatic, rather than an emotional one. ‘It’s the only way we can do it with seven million people’ said Albert Tsang, Operations manager, HKDI DESIS Lab for Social Design Research. ‘It’s not emotional or a struggle. It’s just the way that we do it.’

Dave Hoggard, partner at Paul Davis + Partners’ Hong Kong office agreed, saying that tall buildings are not an issue in Hong Kong, and in fact many prefer it. People live differently there in smaller apartments, spending more time at work or out meeting friends and family, so the home becomes ‘a storage device’ - and living in a house is anyway out of the question financially for many.

In Singapore, too, living in high-rise is not really a matter of choice, said Theodore Chan, president of Singapore Institute of Architects. ‘Because you (in London) have a choice, it makes your problem more difficult.’ One of the new design trends there is to include more public space at higher levels in tall buildings, said Chan, with ‘vertical greening’ also set to become a bigger feature in schemes over the next five years, he predicted. But because of the rapid pace of Singapore’s progress from being a ‘colonial backwater’, it has often sacrificed a sense of identity and of home, said Chan. A strong leader and a ‘lost’ people willing to cooperate with government lay at the heart of the country’s successes, however, with the city becoming more dense and people demanding better housing. Today, many schemes in Singapore seek to build ‘environmental decks’ over car parks or create ‘villages in the sky’ with others concentrating on shared facilities, blending high rise with other nearby facilities such as gyms, child care centres or nursing homes to cater for the ‘Silver Tsunami’ of an ageing population. ‘I predict you will begin to see a lot of this – dual uses in buildings’ said Chan. How people use their spaces varies from country to country, culturally, and it is important to continue to create housing estates with ‘character’ and ‘identity’. Yes, it is very expensive to do high rise, said Chan, ‘but what is the opportunity cost of having urban sprawl?’

In London, the economics of creating towers tends to drive it toward a mono-tenure or even mono-typological solution, said Steve Newman, partner at HTA. ‘I don’t think people think of that as a particularly sustainable way of making places.’ Management is key to the longevity of these places and needs to be built into the schemes from the start, he added, with community trusts one potential way of creating a ‘self-managed’ solution.

In Copenhagen, said Åsa Bjerndel, architect at White arkitekter, the environment is less pressured but there has been discussion about creating tall buildings as a positive symbol of regeneration. One of the key stresses of the work of Jan Gehl, she added, is to attend to the microclimate created at the base of tall buildings.

Back in Hong Kong, architect Martin Fung said that communal life in Hong Kong’s public housing is much more ‘vibrant’ than in the private housing blocks. But he stressed the need to create visual connections across lightwells, for example, to increase the sense of a neighbourhood in tall buildings and cut the common problem of segregation. Connections, he said, are crucial. ‘Social fabric matters a lot more for high rise’. Housing is seen very much as a commodity, too, said Albert Tsang, with many empty units ‘just in the hands of money’. Dr Yanki Lee, director of HKDI DESIS Lab for Social Design Research said the contradiction between Hong Kong’s often tiny apartments and the city being voted the most liveable city by the Economist was driving a cultural mapping project on 200 flats, the different typologies and the way the owners live. Sometimes these units can be as small as 28.8 sqm flats for four people. A new project investigating a new town for 400,000 people called Tseung Kwan O investigates the notion of the street since much of the housing is connected to other facilities by high level walkways.

London is wrestling with the fact of increasing house prices encouraging higher density developments and how to transition from a medium to a high-density city, said Robert Maguire, project director, Wood Wharf, Canary Wharf Group, about which it could learn from Hong Kong. ‘London hasn’t got to grips with how you identify clusters of tall buildings and clusters of density which optimise public transport systems in a way that really works’, he said. And because there is no zoning system here the planning system is not fit for making such a transition smoothly, he added. Colin Wilson, senior manager, planning decisions, GLA rejected that accusation, saying that the policies as regards tall buildings were working well, with opportunity areas identified as the sites for the majority, and that a zoning system would be ‘inappropriate and wrong’ for London. ‘The British system is not zoning’, he said, ‘it’s thinking’.

David Taylor, Editor, NLQ  


London 2050: What can we learn from Denver? - 9/4/2014

Boris Johnson faces an ‘uphill struggle’ in convincing London, the Davies Commission and the airports community over his vision for a new facility to the east of the capital, freeing up land for housing and jobs on the Heathrow site. But Denver’s move to close its Stapleton International Airport 20 years ago to provide a bigger, more efficient airport plus a new community of 17,000 people on its old site shows what can be done with the dual tailwinds of political leadership and support.

That was according to Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, visiting London – and Boris Johnson – with his airport team and speaking at a special conference at Bircham Dyson Bell in Westminster run by NLA, TfL and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport yesterday. Hancock outlined the conditions that lay behind the city deciding to uproot and start again but said his only advice to his London counterpart and ‘visionary’, Johnson, was to ‘keep the dialogue going’, principally about creating a new airport on the Isle of Grain to go with London’s general shift eastwards. ‘As a mayor you either envision things or you manage things’, said Hancock. ‘Johnson is clearly a visionary…You see things most people don’t see and you have to convince people. Part of the challenge for mayors is not to see how things, are but how they could be.’

GLA assistant director of planning Stewart Murray had framed his talk around the pressures faced by London generally, and particularly as they relate to what he called a ‘population demographic timebomb’. ‘We’re in one of the greatest cities on the planet and always have to rise above the debate about airlines and flying and think about cities’, he said. But the possible closure of Heathrow and relocation of the airport could create a series of opportunities for London’s housing and economic needs.

Transport, he said, was a big challenge for a city growing by 2 million to 10 million in total and there was a need for airport capacity fit for a city growing so rapidly. ‘Heathrow is going to be potentially a new city quarter the size of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.’

Denver was faced with an airport – Stapleton – with too few runways that struggled to operate effectively in poor weather and acted as a constraint on the economy as well as a nuisance for residents hit by high noise levels. Eventually, after having negotiated past votes to allow Denver to annex the site and struggles and litigation with opposition from some airlines (which now hail the decision), the city emerged with a new site that was big enough – at 53 square miles – to deal with six initial runways up to 12 potentially, thus militating against the need to move again. The move was founded upon a great deal of strong political leadership at local, state and national level, as well as many hundreds of hours of community consultation.

In 1995 the lights were turned off the old airport, said Kim Day, chief executive of Denver International Airport, when a ‘caravan’ of vehicles moved to the new facility, some 60km from downtown Denver. The challenge, said Day, was to close the ninth busiest airport in the world and open a new one 18 miles away, virtually overnight. The new site has space for 100 million passengers rather than 25 million, 1,550 flights daily today and has achieved eight times the economic impact of the old site. Mayor Hancock said a ‘master developer’ had been appointed to be responsible for the 4,700 acres of land at the old site which in 2002 was opened for the first residents. The real estate values of the site and wider Aerotropolis are projected to be £4.2 billion in 2025 and largely private investment has been helping to build 12,000 new homes, 10m sq ft of office space, six new schools and 1,000 acres of public parks.

‘The lessons of Stapleton are that, by opening our eyes and ears, we can achieve great things’, said Hancock. ‘This was our future.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 


London's Growing Up! Exhibition Private View - 3/4/2014

© Agnese Sanvito © CPAT / Hayes Davidson / Jason Hawkes
The way in which tall buildings relate to the ground plane is just as important as the silhouette they cast on London’s skyline.

So said Foster and Partners’ Spencer de Grey as he opened the blockbuster exhibition on tall buildings at the NLA, ‘London’s Growing Up!’ last night.

De Grey – whose practice Foster and Partners designed the Swiss Re building which topped the show’s popular vote of tall buildings in London as part of a MORI poll, told the large audience that his practice chose to make the Gherkin taller in order to maximise the amount of space at ground level given over to the public realm. This, he said, was a similar move to that the firm made in Frankfurt with its Commerzbank building creating a relationship with smaller structures at its base enclosing a public space, restaurant and art gallery. ‘I think these considerations of the impact of high rise at ground level are extraordinarily important’, said de Grey, ‘and I think any building has to grow out of the ground upwards…and from the qualities that make London’s streets special’.

‘London’s Growing Up!’, features an accompanying events programme of conferences, think tanks and public talks running until June and is, said de Grey, the starting point of a very important debate for the capital.

The show features a mass of information and research, images and models on the 230-plus tall buildings which are in the pipeline for the capital, as well as surveys and regulations which have affected, and continue to impact on, this building type.

Show curator Peter Murray said that amongst a flurry of media attention on the subject the NLA is proposing an idea for a Skyline Commission to oversee the detailed development of London’s tall buildings – and how they meet the ground – in a capital city faced with sharp population rises over the near future.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 


Farrell Review Industry Launch - 3/4/2014

Culture minister Ed Vaizey has pledged to do all he can to avoid the ‘disaster’ of the Farrell Review becoming just another report to be left on the government shelf. Instead he told an audience gathered at the NLA this morning for the review’s launch presentation that it is ‘just the beginning of a conversation’ and a platform which will be reassessed in a year’s time to see what progress has been made.

Vaizey was speaking at the event at which Sir Terry Farrell himself presented some of the review’s key findings, alongside eight of the architects and other specialists who had helped him compile it.

Farrell said that since the official press launch 48 hours previously there had been some 4,000 unique visitors to the review’s website from 60 different countries, as well as over 1000 tweets, over 90% of which had been positive (albeit with some ‘oddball’ responses). This, said Farrell, showed the extent of interest in the subject, of how to initiate widespread change in the architecture and built environment professions, as set out in the document’s 60-plus recommendations.

One of the key problems the review process identified, though, was the way in which architecture and built environment issues had been shunted around political departments, and the way in which consecutive governments reassess where it fits and how to approach it. The Treasury, moreover, has ‘far too strong a stranglehold – they’re control freaks’.

Another concern was the fact that, despite having some of the best architects in the world, there is still a great deal of low quality developments being built in the UK. ‘Drop yourself on any street corner in Britain and look around you – it is fairly woeful what you see’, said Farrell. Already, there has been movement on some of the recommendations, however. Farrell reported that there had been conversations already about staging an international festival of architecture in London, with NLA and others, and with educational bodies about creating a foundation course in architecture, another of the review’s recommendations. ‘I believe this has got to be a review that is owned by us and has to have a long life’, said Farrell.

Farrell also commended the idea of the creation of ‘urban rooms’ across the country where the public can learn about their localities, proclaiming the NLA to be ‘the most wonderful urban room in Britain’, and he offered his name to support the notion of a Skyline Commission, another NLA initiative.

Panel discussion of the review was wide and varied, including Sunand Prasad’s observations that we no longer operate in an ‘either/or’ world, but one where a new generation of young people do not have an inbuilt schism between tradition and modernity’; we should all learn more about placemaking and the built environment; and we should at least look to review the idea of protection of title.

Peter Bishop echoed Farrell’s earlier words by saying that there was a paradox in Britain where, despite having some of the best practices and schools in the world we can produce an ‘awful lot that is mediocre’ and that the review should be the start of a 10-15 year project to turn things around. Certainly on education, Farrell pointed to many of the countries in the world whose architecture we admire – Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – have some of the shortest architectural education courses (five years).

Other points included from Alison Brooks, who suggested a more business-like approach from architects could be valuable, but that ‘value engineering rarely delivers value and it rarely delivers engineering’. Victoria Thornton emphasised the need for champions but that the Department for Education needs to better understand the value of design education, while Hank Dittmar made the point that planning – considered largely reactive – is most often perceived as development control empowering NIMBYs rather than engaging communities. The greatest damage, he added, has come through insensitive road design and ‘planning needs to be reconfigured as a design discipline’. Bishop said one of the reasons for many of the issues in planning is that, as a profession, it is ‘woefully deskilled and under-resourced’. Lucy Musgrave commended the review’s ‘public, very participatory and inclusive process’ but asked who champions the civic in this country? And Jim Eyre warned that there was a seemingly ‘intractable’ problem over bringing architecture onto the schools curriculum, and that the methods government used to procure its buildings are ‘totally inappropriate and need to be re-examined’.

Perhaps, said Farrell, architecture and the built environment should take a leaf out of the books of health and food in this country, both of which have been revolutionised in the last couple of decades. The UK needs to return to place-based planning, and although there is no one big idea or silver bullet from the review, the will to change must be there just as it was to drive the UK to better standards in food and health. ‘Campaign’, he told the audience. ‘That’s how health and food changed. These things change because everybody kept pushing.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly



NLA Chairman calls on Mayor Boris Johnson to create a London Skyline Commission - 2/4/2014

NLA Chairman, Peter Murray, has called on Mayor Boris Johnson to create a London Skyline Commission to control the quality of new tall buildings in the capital.

Peter Murray's announcement coincides with the opening of London’s Growing Up!, a timely NLA exhibition which explores the impact of the rapid changes that are taking place to London’s skyline.

While supporting the idea of more tall buildings, Murray believes that Britain’s capital city urgently needs a panel of experts to comment on the amount, height, location and quality of tall buildings, with an overview of the city as a whole. He is also proposing an openly accessible 3D digital model of London which includes all proposed towers, which will allow planners to assess the impact of new buildings and encourage London’s citizens to join the debate and have their say on the future of their city.

Commenting on the initiative, Peter Murray said:
“London is growing. Its population could well hit 10 million by 2030 and right now the capital faces a perfect storm of pressures on the development of tall buildings: a critical housing shortage; rocketing land prices; and burgeoning international investment. More tall buildings can help to meet London's growing housing demand, but they must be in the right places, be well designed and with generous consideration to their impact at ground level. A London Skyline Commission can look at the totality of tall building development in London and assess the impact that it is having on the shape of the city.”


City of Westminster - on Location - 27/3/2014

Saw Swee Hock LSE © Nigel Stead
Westminster is aiming to retain its role as ‘champion of raising the bar in high quality design, delivered for the benefit of the city’ – but must build more office space, even in the face of challenging permitted development rights changes imposed by government.

Those were some of the headline views to emerge at a special NLA On Location event in association with Westminster City Council and sponsored by Berwin Leighton Paisner, held at the new LSE Saw Swee Hock Student Centre last week, along with a debunking of ‘anecdotal’ views expressed in the press that Westminster is becoming prey to ‘dark’ developments where overseas investors invest, but don’t inhabit.

Councillor Robert Davis, deputy leader of Westminster City Council, said that his borough is like no other in the country – one in 40 employees in the country works in Westminster, or almost 700,000 people. Some 49,500 separate businesses contribute £49 billion to the country, or 3.1% of the entire national output, but Westminster’s challenges includes a world heritage site now ‘under threat’ from ‘those Luddites of Lambeth’. Westminster is also England’s busiest planning authority, with over 12,000 applications a year and some 187 ‘major’ applications received since 2011. But despite seeking to remain the ‘champion for high quality design’, Davis said approximately a third of the 400,000m2 of office space gained between 1996 and 2010 have been lost in the last three years, with further losses of offices to residential in the pipeline. ‘The worth on offer to developers for conversions was already tempting enough but last year’s changes have accelerated their popularity.’ Westminster is ‘entirely and absolutely pro-growth’, added Davis, but such losses and their replacement with residential development have ‘really serious implications’ for health, education and transport provision, plus a loss of affordable housing.

Westminster’s strategic director for built environment Rosemarie MacQueen said the borough is being forced to ‘face up to what we do about the disappearing office’, a view echoed by Westminster Property Association chair Daniel van Gelder, who said that with its lack of supply, Westminster is losing occupiers who want big buildings. ‘Have we really started to build effectively for the effects of Crossrail?’ he asked. ‘I don’t think we have’. Westminster needs to build more offices, larger offices, and with larger floorplates, impelled by buildings being lost to residential every week and prices being paid for some sites coming in at as much as £2000/sqft. Restrictions on residential in some areas could possibly be one way out, but van Gelder believes the market may ‘self-correct’.  

MacQueen said that with an average house price in Westminster now round £1million compared to a £473,000 regional average, the stamp duty contribution to national coffers is considerable, but issues of affordability are crucial. However, she said, there is a great deal of ‘anecdotal’ material in the press about ‘lights out London’ which is not borne out by new statistics from researchers Ramidus Consulting.

The principal of Ramidus Rob Harris said that around 15,000 of Westminster’s 118,000 homes are ‘prime’ – i.e. with a property value of above £2m. He added that the concentration of super prime residential is quite small, that we live in world cities rather than nation states and that overseas investors are making commitments with many of their properties held for the long-term, sending their children to local schools and building relationships in the area.

The conference also heard from New West End Company chairman Sir Peter Rogers, who warned that Westminster must stay ‘special’, ensure planning policies are fit for purpose and guard against London’s centre of gravity moving east; Grosvenor’s Nigel Hughes on neighbourhood forums, particularly Mayfair’s, but also the fact that only seven neighbourhood plans have been formally adopted in the two years since they were put into force; and Berwin Leighton Paisner partner Tim Smith, who suggested that localism was a ‘one-size-fits-all concept’ and about growth, not one designed with London communities in mind. David Rowe, head of borough projects and programmes at TfL, said that Crossrail 2 must happen to help travel journeys in the capital further; Michael Squire, senior partner at Squire and Partners, took the audience through some of his practice’s context-respecting projects and repeated his idea for Westminster to allow an extra storey on developments built since the war; and Publica director Lucy Musgrave detailed her firm’s work at places like Capco’s Covent Garden on exploring the ‘DNA’ of Westminster and London, understanding its conditions, safeguarding its social infrastructure and creating connections.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly


NLA tall building research results: good design is important but we don’t want to live in them – what Londoners really think of tall buildings - 26/3/2014

CPAT / Hayes Davidson / Jason HawkesTo coincide with the exhibition London’s Growing Up! NLA have conducted an in-depth poll in conjunction with Ipsos MORI, to establish how Londoners really feel about the increasing number of tall buildings planned for their capital.

The Norman Foster-designed 30 St Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin, was chosen as Londoners’ favourite building with 36 per cent from a selection of 13 tall towers. Western Europe’s tallest building, The Shard, ranked in second place and newcomer to the London skyline, The Leadenhall Building (nicknamed the Cheesegrater) ranked third. The historic Barbican was chosen as Londoners least favourite tall building.

When asked to consider the number of tall buildings in the capital 45 per cent felt that tall buildings had improved the London skyline. 40 per cent disagreed with the statement that ‘there are too many tall buildings in London’.

Whether the design fits in with the London skyline topped the list of Londoners’ priorities
when constructing new towers. 53 per cent chose this as their highest or second highest priority. Design and affordability were also priorities, 35 per cent chose whether it has good design and 32 per cent felt affordable housing was a necessity in new towers. Young Londoners’ let design take a backseat than the older demographic with their priorities focused on whether the new towers could offer new job opportunities.

Most Londoners didn’t aspire to live in tall buildings
. Young men proved the most likely to want to live in towers but were still heavily outnumbered by those not wanting to move upward. The figures also showed that seven out of ten over 34’s were unwilling to live in the high-rise towers.

When it came to work however – 61 per cent of Londoners were happy to work in tall buildings, rising to 72 per cent amongst the younger demographic.

26 per cent wanted to see more tall buildings being built than in the last five years although 37 per cent of Londoners wanted to see fewer. Inner Londoners wanted the construction of fewer tall buildings than those that live in the outer suburbs and more men voted for an increase in tall buildings than women.

When asked if enough was being done to control the construction of tall buildings, the vote was pretty evenly split
– 31 per cent yes and 26 per cent no, with the rest unsure.

The results of this poll follows fresh on the heels of an NLA and GL Hearn building survey, released at MIPIM, which found that there are at least 236 towers above 20 storeys currently planned for the London.

Ben Marshall, Research Director, Ipsos MORI, said: “With London facing a ‘housing crisis’ and keen to grow economically, the onus tends to be on the quantity of new building. Tall towers offer promise, but our new poll for New London Architecture underlines the importance the London public place on quality and design. Opinion is mixed – Londoners might like looking at tall towers, but they are less sure about living in them.”

Peter Murray, Chairman of NLA and curator of London’s Growing Up! said: "I am pleased to see that more people these days are in favour of tall buildings than against - well designed towers in the right place can enhance the skyline. Equally bad ones do the opposite.  We must be vigilant. The quantity of buildings coming through the system is such that we need to make sure the right controls are in place, that is why we are calling for the Mayor to set up a London Skyline Commission to ensure that only best quality buildings get through the net."

For full results see

The full NLA Insight Study will be launched next Wednesday.


Overseas Investment: What does it mean for London? - 20/3/2014

London’s love affair with foreign property investors shows no sign of abating as they capitalise on the UK capital’s ‘safe haven’ status, stable political system and attractive returns. But London must guard against pricing people out of the centre as housing pressures force workforces to consider moving out. 

Those were some of the issues arising this morning from an NLA session on overseas investment, sponsored by Speechly Bircham and held in their offices at New Street Square.

London and Partners principal adviser for development and regeneration Katie Kopec set the scene, explaining that her role in facilitating inward investment was part of helping the mayor deliver his vision for 2020, with housing and jobs as his main priorities. London is the fastest growing city in Europe, said Kopec, adding around 75,000-100,000 people per year through pure growth rather than immigration, towards a population heading for 10 million by 2031. This is putting ‘huge pressures’ on housing, particularly in the ‘middle market’, although private rental is one area London and Partners are striving to encourage other investors in.

In commercial property, London is also strong, she said. ‘London has been and continues to be the main place where people come to invest in real estate’, said Kopec, whose organisation acts like a ‘matchmaker’ between foreign entities and developers or local authorities here. Specific areas of focus include Ruskin Square in Croydon, Silvertown, and Old Oak Common, where there will be a mayoral development corporation in place before the end of the year. Another, though, is Tottenham; ‘the mayor is really passionate about something happening in Tottenham, post-riots'.

Savills’ Global head of capital markets Simon Hope said that the bulk of inward investment was coming from the US and Asia Pacific – very strongly from China – going to the so-called ‘city states’ of Manhattan, Paris and London in particular. Last year saw the strongest 12 months ever in London’s commercial market, with quantitative easing clearly supporting the sector, and investors drawn by London’s currency, language, ‘phenomenal’ education’ and an interesting historic fabric to the city. Hope said the market was starting to see pre-lets return but beyond 2014 there is insufficient supply.

Residential, though, is ‘a whole lot more valuable than office space’ and people are flocking to the centre, although some 88% of new build stock has sold abroad to around 72 nationalities. ‘Living in London is like putting your finger in an electric socket’, he said. ‘It’s exciting.’

Battersea Power Station is one major scheme which would never finally have got going without foreign – and in this case Malaysian – money. Chief financial officer of Battersea Power Station Development Company Simon Murphy said the ‘absolute vision and desire to do something at Battersea’ from SP Setia Sime Darby had been key, but in conjunction with political will from central government, the GLA and local authorities and certainty about things like the Northern Line Extension. The project includes a £750million restoration of the power station, 40% of the space being devoted to amenities for the whole area, 3,500 new homes – 500 of them affordable – 18 acres of public space and including a new six acre riverside park. Some 15,000 jobs a year will be created, with £85 million of business rates generated each year. ‘It’s going to be something which is well beyond expectations’, said Murphy. It will not, however, be affected by ‘lights-out London’, he added.

The conference also heard from Oxford Properties UK managing director Richard Pilkington, who said that joint ventures such as the one Oxford has successfully struck with British Land over the Leadenhall Building are a smart way to enter markets, but rely on honesty, alignment and respect as well as picking the right investments and Mark Smith, partner and head of real estate at Speechly Bircham, who forecast that there were far more ‘unconventional’ deals struck now than even three years ago and warned that investors must think about strategy, credentials and adopt clear decision making. Finally, there was a double-act from ABP London executive director John Miu and Farrells’ Max Farrell. Speaking about the plans they have for the Royal Albert Dock, Miu said London was ‘a logical choice for Europe’ and that the east will see ‘huge, significant investment’ coupled with the extra accessibility promised by Crossrail. ‘We believe London is one of the most business-friendly cities in the world’, said Miu. Farrell, meanwhile, said the scheme – the biggest private investment in Europe to date – was aimed at meeting the ‘huge amount of potential activity in the docks’. The masterplan is based on a geometric grid with long east-west routes, a promenade opening up 1km of waterfront, a central spine high street and an ecological corridor along the north of the site as well as eight new squares. ‘The architectural strategy is to create diversity’, said Farrell; ‘to create a rich and diverse place. What we’re creating is more of London.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 


Supurbia Think Tank - 17/3/2014

Could the densification of London’s outer suburbs come to the aid of the capital’s ever more concerning housing need?
A special Think Tank on the so-called Supurbia, co-hosted at the NLA by HTA Design, sought to debate the issue to see what could, or should, be done.

HTA’s Ben Derbyshire set the scene, offering a précis of a study his practice has produced and the notion that the suburbs present both an opportunity –essentially the housing shortfall – and a problem – their relative low densities at around 2,500 people per square kilometre and low property values. How was it, Derbyshire asked, that a terraced property in Fulham would fetch some four times as much as equivalent accommodation in Waltham Forest, with the latter failing to lure young buyers despite the difference? But beyond value, perhaps the suburbs have an ‘enormous brand problem’ too.

For the chair of the mayor’s Outer London Commission, William McKee, a very clear message came from meetings he and his team had held with the outer London boroughs – yes, they’re up for greater densification, but not everywhere. The trade-offs they are prepared to make lie principally in densifying the town centres, rather than in areas we might label ‘Acacia Avenue’. They are also up for opportunity areas and intensification where the built form can in a sense start from a clean piece of paper. ‘The appetite’s there’, said McKee. ‘How you do it is the critical factor.’

Discussion of the housing shortfall often moves towards a debate about the potential relaxation of the Green Belt, and it did so here, with areas such as Barking in Redbridge finding that some Green Belt land was no longer performing its task, leading to thoughts of de-designation. This is when suburbia becomes ‘disturbia’, however, with the issue of densification highly controversial and ‘extremely sensitive’ in the suburbs, particularly against de-designation of recreational uses. ‘They’ll use every blog and tweet and social media to get their message across’, said Redbridge’s Mark Lucas. ‘They’re living in low-density neighbourhoods with a high quality of life, good schools, good public transport and healthcare and amenities. They don’t want to give it up…and there will have to be a bit of a struggle’. Pat Hayes of the so-called ‘queen of the suburbs’, Ealing, agreed that this should be about densifying the town centres, pointing out that there are certainly degraded, quasi-industrial elements of the Green Belt which could be suitable for amenity and new types of development. But one of the key challenges is in getting people to understand that residential development is important, and that both modern architecture and densification can be forces for good. ‘People will support densification more if they think there is a reasonable mix’, he said, rather than just housing for absent landlords or buy-to-let. In some areas, though, the subject of the Green Belt isn’t even vaguely on the political agenda, said Barnet’s Stephen MacDonald, but it is a truism that we have failed to create a new vernacular for dense, high quality housing in the suburbs. The borough has been successful in quadrupling density on a scheme in West Hendon, however, with 2200 units, but the real conundrum is that the more we try to get out of developments in terms of extra facilities, the more dense they have to get and thus the less acceptable they become to people.

Other issues discussed during the Think Tank included how the UK has restrictive standards as they apply to building codes including ‘archaic’ daylighting standards; the need to get back to public investment in infrastructure to relieve the up-front cost burden to developers; the ageing population’s potential to impact on schemes; encouraging occupiers of ‘Acacia Avenue’ to welcome and participate in ‘small, incremental change’; the potential for exercising restraint over cars and car parking spaces in the suburbs as a pre-requisite to intensification and the ‘vital’ need to densify town centres with residential, including above retail, to safeguard their economic prospects – keeping local money in local places. The research in this area should also be seen alongside that being done in the name of the Wolfson Prize, which is inviting new ideas in the supply of housing and new towns.

Yolande Barnes of Savills sounded a note of caution when she said that rather than look to design to solve issues, the fundamentals of deliverability – land and money – must be the first item on the agenda. The main thrust must be towards creating clear business models to enable schemes to stack up, rather than look to the physical solution alone. It must also be remembered, though, said Paul Finch, that people do actually like the suburbs for their community feel, the gardens, and the fact it is ‘not Hackney’ or transient. There is a simple reason for the housing shortage, he added – we didn’t build enough. The people who want to build on Green Belt are the same as those who want to build on flood plains, he said – it simply needs imagination to better utilise spaces in the centre which are still available. The only way forward, he added, is for the public sector to take on the role it did since the LCC – to provide for what the private sector cannot because it is a business.

There is no one silver bullet that can solve London’s housing problems, however, and it perhaps needs a garden city outside of the M25, said PRP chairman Andy von Bradsky. But the intensification of the suburbs is an interesting and necessary proposition, with new technologies potentially transforming how cars are used and an ageing population impacting on layouts and, potentially, completely transforming how we design the suburbs. LLDC chair of design Kathryn Firth added that technology will affect mobility and free up land, while homes designed to allow for more home-working could also be a boon to the suburbs, which need a whole range of typologies. ‘We have to get the house builders to buy into that’, she said. ‘It’s a very traditional industry but we need to work with them and take out all of the silos.’

A successful city can only be successful if its suburbs are too, said GLA deputy mayor for housing, land and property Richard Blakeway. But the reality is that if you want to live in London you will not move to, say, Ebbsfleet. If we are to meet the numbers the Opportunity Areas only get us three-quarters of the way there – perhaps one answer lies in the fact that a lot of stock is in the hands of private landlords.

But if we were to build out London to Kensington and Chelsea densities, added Paul Finch, we would get to a population of 21 million. ‘So let’s not pretend we can’t do it within the boundaries of this city’ he said, ‘if we design it properly, and we have the political will to do it.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly


New River Thames Crossings and the Garden Bridge - 14/3/2014

Building bridges in London gets more complex the further east one goes because of the increasing width of the Thames and the need to go higher for large ships to pass beneath them. But the capital is making great strides to increase the number of crossings to better connect a growing population and improve ageing assets in the east. In the centre, meanwhile, the £120 million Heatherwick Studio-designed Garden Bridge will be a pedestrian-only sculptural addition to London’s infrastructure with ‘a sense of place’, where tourists and Londoners can linger or move across at their own speed.

Those were some of the key findings at a stimulating breakfast talk at NLA last week at which representatives of Transport for London, Heatherwick Studio and Arup debated the impact that future crossings will make to London.

Richard de Cani, Director of Transport Strategy and Policy, Planning at TfL said that it was acknowledged as a ‘very significant problem’ that there are far fewer crossings east of Tower Bridge than to the west, but that delivering new ones in London is challenging. People underestimate the size of the river at Putney compared to at Silvertown or Greenwich, he said, where the trade-off is between longer, higher structures that are at a less ‘human scale’ but which are necessary to serve London’s economy. At Gallions Reach, for example, the river is 650m wide, and headroom clearance east of Tower Bridge is 50m. ‘We’re talking about a very different river, with very different characteristics’.

Transport modeling tools have shown that in west London there are about four million total trips made on an average day across roads, rail, walking and cycling, of which around nine per cent cross the river. But this compares with east London, where three million trips are made but only one per cent cross the river, illustrating the barrier to movement a lack of crossings represents. Old assets such as the Blackwall Tunnel are causing problems with over-height vehicles and the stress they impose on businesses seeking to plan with certainty, with over 1000 closures a year. And while there has been significant investment in rail in the east, with the DLR, Jubilee Line, CTRL and soon Crossrail, there has not been the equivalent investment in roads.

Meanwhile, the cable car, said de Cani, was developed because it was impossible to create a pedestrian bridge on its site, and not as a ‘novelty tourist attraction’ but to provide connectivity for two growth areas. ‘We planned it knowing it would be relatively quiet in the early years’. De Cani also added that the Silvertown road tunnel was scheduled to open by 2023 and will be funded and managed by user charges.

One high profile bridge that is proceeding relatively quickly is the Garden Bridge designed by Heatherwick Studio, a planning application for which is being submitted in May this year, and the backers of which are gathering donations to help reach its £120m price tag. Stuart Wood, Project Leader on Garden Bridge and Head of Innovation at Heatherwick Studio said the bridge has a ‘perfect slot’ which is a ‘gap in the market’ in amongst Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges from near Temple Station to the South Bank, surrounded by ‘an amazing array’ of institutions and tourist attractions. ‘The project for us is about asking ‘where does infrastructure and a sense of place collide’, said Wood. It is also about tapping into what experience a bridge could offer for a pedestrian that only a pedestrian bridge could offer, with less of the sense of movement that happens at the Millennium Bridge. ‘It’s expressing the opportunity of doing something more meandering’, said Wood, with the bridge splaying to 30m at its widest point and back down to 8-9m and featuring five principal horticultural stages including a ‘cultivated glade’, rest places and a palette of materials specific to the world of gardens. Finally, Tristram Carfrae, Group Board Director at Arup said that the bridge is ‘primarily a garden’ but will inevitably be a destination with all parts of the scheme structural and deliberately referring to ships with materials including copper and nickel welded to black steel ‘trussery’ in the middle of the bridge. Everything has been designed to be transportable, with components trucked into the city and work conducted over the water reduced down to a minimum. But the most difficult challenge is how people will use the bridge’ said Carfrae, with no precedent or benchmark available. ‘This is going to have to be a bit ‘let’s see how this happens’’ he said. Carfrae added that it is possible people may get stuck on the bridge in its early, popular days, but traffic flows will settle down. The projected high level of pedestrian flows is one of the reasons why a decision was made to make it a pedestrian-only bridge, with TfL concentrating on improving facilities for cyclists on other bridges such as Blackfriars or Waterloo instead.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly
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