‘Superdensity’ schemes pose risk to London’s essential character

Friday 22 May 2015

London risks becoming a victim of its own success, creating too many tall buildings at ‘hyperdense’ levels rather than mid-rise, street-based schemes that preserve the city’s essential character.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from a fascinating breakfast conference at NLA this morning, entitled ‘Superdensity the sequel – designing high density housing and sustainable places’.

Claire Bennie kicked off proceedings by asking who in the packed audience had ever lived above the fifth floor in a building – around 15-20% raising their hands – and then whose organizations are involved in designing or commissioning tall buildings – with almost everyone signaling positively.

Andrew Beharrell, senior partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards, said the pace and extent of physical change in London today was greater than ever, post-war, which was a sign that people want to live and work in the capital. This is the main reason why the population is growing at 300 people a day and on course for 10 million by 2031. But this success creates a challenge for infrastructure, while the ‘intensity and character’ of London’s housing has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. NLA research showed that 263 towers are on their way, and although planning policy indicates that ‘tall’ is anything over 10 storeys, 20 storeys-plus has become ‘the new normal.’  Densities are also rising. ‘There are now schemes in London edging up to 500 homes per hectare’, said Beharrell. ‘We’re calling this hyperdensity’. We need to learn the art of placemaking in very dense developments, he added, and mid-rise, street based alternatives could anyway meet all of London’s housing needs.

HTA managing director Ben Derbyshire said the problem is not confined to London and that one sees in developing countries ‘with increasing alarm’ the way that the point block is being bought wholesale as the solution to urbanization. ‘Streets work’, said Derbyshire. ‘They are a city’s greatest asset’. Schemes should be designed for life, then spaces, then buildings, he added, in accordance with the thoughts of Jan Gehl and towers should enhance, not blight the ground plane. Derbyshire’s messages for a new mayor include the need for a London Plan that to fight for devolved land and property taxation.

Levitt Bernstein managing director Matthew Goulcher said that much of this is about the need for diverse communities and continuing to integrate a variety of uses. Spiralling property prices and a lack of affordability have led to a change landscape where young professionals struggle to find accommodation in London. Sharing is perhaps one answer – some 40% of LB’s staff of around 100 are in shared accommodation, but the main battle is against a loss of city character. Policy needs to focus on larger family dwellings, with planning encouraging mixed use. ‘we need to simplify the whole environment of Section 106 agreements and need to secure more affordable housing with less room for maneuver’ he said. Schemes should be designed to integrate specialist housing, with targets set as bed spaces per hectare, he added.

Finally, PRP chairman Andy von Bradsky said the lack of maintenance on 60s and 70s buildings had led to their collective failure and an ongoing problem we’re now dealing with. Management needs to be factored in from the beginning, and it is much easier to mitigate management costs in mid-rise development. ‘We’re not against high-rise – this is not an anti tower rant. All we’re saying is that there needs to be greater rigour and scrutiny to the way we design high rose buildings.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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Superdensity - the Sequel: Designing high density housing and sustainable places


London’s population has recently passed its pre-war peak in 1939 of 8.6 million, with projections of 10 million people or higher by 2030. Yet the capital’s success in attracting people as well as economic growth creates a serious challenge for the provision of additional homes and infrastructure, resulting in significant pressure to densify. How can we meet people’s needs, while creating popular and lasting places rooted in our city’s distinctive urban traditions?