London must battle to overcome preconceptions about density that stretch back to slums and overcrowding and look at its sharp population growth as less of a crisis and more of an opportunity to create new housing solutions.
That was one of the key pointers to emerge from a NLA breakfast talk last week co-hosted by SOM.
The practice’s design director Kent Jackson began by proposing a new model for delivering vertical communities at ‘intelligent densities’ in order to attend to a rise of 1.5 million in the capital’s population levels by 2030. London, said Jackson, does not figure highly in density terms on the international scale, with cities like New York and Barcelona denser environments, and even London’s densest areas such as Kensington and Chelsea or Islington more akin to Brighton in feel than a landscape peppered by tall buildings. If the density levels of those areas were replicated across the whole of London it would cope with 21 million people. ‘So the crisis isn’t a crisis’, said Jackson. ‘It’s an opportunity’. One of the keys lies in ‘repairing’ the city, intensifying in areas of high PTAL ratings and Opportunity Areas, and only a small uplift is required to densities from 20 units/hectare to 23.5million to reach the 1.5 million extra needed, perhaps with buildings in the 10-30 storey range. But the ‘touchy’ thing is how we go about building tall, said Jackson, especially in a city where the design of office buildings is more advanced than the residential sector and where the transition to more of a high-rise typology has not yet been made. The GLA is doing ‘all the right things’, said Jackson, but its measures had failed to allow for more ‘aspirational’ housing to come forward, and very similar, ‘bland’ and ‘mundane’ products are being constructed. To create a more characterful and sustainable form of housing, SOM has developed some research into 10-storey increments on timber towers, with a 60-storey version created with 70% timber to see how far the idea could be pushed. The prototype – which is about ‘blue sky thinking’, since there would be a limit to how much capacity there would be – allows for a significant carbon reduction equivalent to taking some 880 cars off the road in the UK. There is also, said Jackson, more scope to cluster and share energy across uses especially in opportunity areas. ‘It comes back to seeing, not squandering, this opportunity we have today of bringing everything together in communities and thinking about how we develop the residential crisis and work together to solve it and not add to the problems in London.’
Discussion of the principles in the model included from planning manager at the GLA Colin Wilson, who said that much of the problems of the housing crisis in the capital was down to the price of land – ‘It’s dementedly expensive, and everything flows from that’, he said. Sturgis Carbon managing director Simon Sturgis said it was about a striking balance between storey height and the level of infrastructure required at low-rise. And Manhattan Loft CEO Harry Handelsman said that potential purchasers were increasingly asking if there was the potential to combine flats, the developer endorsing such flexibility, although doing this in high rise presented challenges. First Base head of design Steve Newman said the flexibility inherent in the proposals was something he applauded, champions and includes in design briefs. But ultimately, he said, it was the people and activity that makes a place, with buildings as the backdrop.
Finally, LSE director Tony Travers, speaking from the floor during questions, said London was once twice as dense as it is today, with the response from planners to slums and overcrowding being to allow for development in railway-enabled areas away from the centre. ‘We’re always up against that and convincing people that density isn’t about overcrowding’, he said. ‘I think there is partly a selling exercise to be dealt with here.’
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly