Tall buildings - How many is too many?

Friday 27 April 2018

©Agnese Sanvito

The pros and cons of creating the next generation of tall buildings were given a thorough airing at the NLA this morning, with exponents and opponents putting their cases for the pipeline of over 500 on their way for London. But as one questioner to the panel pointed out, the cost of land and building tall meant that affordability to most Londoners was simply impossible.

The event – Tall Buildings in London – how many is too many? was kicked off by moderator Peter Murray, who said applications for buildings of over 20 storeys remained strong and that the 510 in the pipeline were proof that they play a key part in delivering the 66,000 homes London needs every year.

But, said Create Streets founding director Nicholas Boys Smith, it does not have to be this way.  Tall buildings absolutely do have their place in an international city ‘but we don’t need them at an absolute level to deliver sufficient homes’ he said. Things like the London Plan and other guidance are ‘chronically biased against gentle density’, Boys Smith added, pointing to the two densest kilometres in Europe – in Barcelona and Paris – where there were no towers in sight. Data that Create Streets has analysed on tall buildings show that they make bringing up children harder, their inhuman scale discourages behaving well to neighbours, and they increase the ease of crime. They also create overshadowing and less liveability, are less energy efficient and are unpopular; we should be building density at the human scale instead, he said. ‘The people are telling us something. They are not the way to provide fair, equitable housing for the majority of people for the majority of the time.’

And yet the industry is 60/40 prejudiced against tall buildings, and the public perhaps even more so, suggested Metropolitan Workshop associate Jonathan Drage. Sometimes, there was ‘a requirement and imperative to go high’ and Drage’s projects – including a scheme for Pocket in Wandsworth, showed how affordability could also be a high priority. ‘the Pocket product is a game-changer’, said Drage. ‘I think it’s revolutionary.’

SimpsonHaugh founding partner Ian Simpson is another tall buildings fan, living at the top of one of his designs, and is of the belief that London will benefit from the 500 or so being built, 90% of which are for residential. ‘It’s just a pity that 1,500 tall buildings aren’t being proposed’, he said. Such schemes are complementary, but should touch the ground lightly and be ‘inspiring’, not formulaic, heightening the quality of life. More often than not, politics, planning and the development process result in mediocre architectural responses, he said.

Finally, Skyline campaign co-founder Barbara Weiss said that London’s ‘DNA” was different to other cities, with towers often a threat to our heritage assets and the problem of overdevelopment as at the Shell Centre, and the phenomena of clusters, of which Weiss was not an admirer. ‘We’re getting an asparagus patch’, she said. Many tall buildings were expensive to maintain, but another problem was homogeneity. ‘The danger of all of this is we’re now creating what I call generic city’, she said.

A Q and A session with the audience debated issues including good design, maintenance vs that of a Georgian terrace, planning through the ages and relaxation of the Green Belt to cater for London’s expansion. But one of the main points was financial: to make a building work requires a minimum of £800/sq ft, which equates to a one-bed or two-bed of £450,000-£625,000; something which simply cannot, said the questioner, solve the housing crisis.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ

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NLA London Tall Buildings Survey 2018

London faces increasing challenges in accommodating a growing population, expected to reach over 11 million people by 2050, while commitments to contain the sprawl within the Green Belt prompts questions on how to make better use of the scarce amount of land available.