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Don’t fear the skyscraper – why London needs more tall buildings

Philip Oldfield, Author provided

Don’t fear the skyscraper – why London needs more tall buildings

Philip Oldfield, Author provided

From New York, to London, to Tokyo, tall buildings are a familiar – though not always popular – part of the cityscape. In Paris, there is vocal opposition against proposals for three new towers in the city centre – the Tour Triangle, the Tour Duo and the new Palais de Justice. Meanwhile, London appears set for a skyscraper boom, with hundreds of new towers to be built in the UK capital over the coming years.

Some people are concerned that these new developments will destroy the cities’ historic skylines. In particular, Alain de Botton has warned that London could be turned into “a bad version of Dubai or Shanghai”. But this comparison is laughable, and the fear that London is set to be overrun by empty crystalline towers is entirely misplaced.

Boom or blip?

Research tells us that London has 263 buildings of 20 storeys or more in height, either under construction or proposed to be built. To many, this is a huge and frightening number. But let’s put this figure in context: Shanghai had 6,266 20-storey towers already built by 2014, with thousands more in the pipeline. China is without doubt the global centre of tall building construction. To accommodate an extra 350 million urban dwellers by 2025, it is estimated the country will build 50,000 new skyscrapers. This is 190 times the number proposed in London, and equivalent to ten New York Cities.

Shanghai’s vertigo-inducing skyline. sama093/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Meanwhile, Switzerland – a country known better for timber chalets than glass skyscrapers – has plans to build between 140 and 160 new towers. The country has a population similar to London’s, but much more land to build on, so you’d think there would be relatively little demand for high-rise buildings. And yet Switzerland is still proposing to build almost two-thirds as many towers as London.

When it comes to tall residential buildings, those with roughly 45 storeys or more are likely to be more than 150 metres tall. London currently has 16 towers of this height, while Dubai has 146, and Shanghai has 125. Should all the proposed towers get built, London will see this figure rise to 47. This might sound like a boom to Londoners, but on an international scale, it is actually little more than a blip. London is not going to turn into Shanghai-on-Thames any time soon.

Getting dense

One of the main arguments for building tall is to create greater density. By stacking dwellings on top of each other, a plot of land can accommodate more people, and reduce the need to build outwards into the countryside. Yet many argue that low-rise and terraced housing can achieve the same density as towers. While this may be possible on larger sites, where the inclusion of streets and squares is viable, when it comes to developing London’s smallest brownfield sites, the only way to accommodate higher numbers of houses is to build upwards.

Paris is often cited as the prime example of a low-rise, high-density city. The city accommodates 21,500 people per square kilometre, making it one of the densest in the Western world. And yet there has not been a single skyscraper built in central Paris since 1973, when the 59-storey Tour Montparnasse became the “most hated building in Paris”. Instead, the focus has been on buildings of six to eight storeys.

But the idea that Paris is a city without skyscrapers is actually a myth. Instead, all of its new tall buildings are clustered in a region known as La Défense, at the outskirts of the city, away from its historic centre. This has allowed Paris to develop a dense office district and compete financially with other cities while maintaining the character of its low-rise boulevards in the centre.

While outside the political boundary of Paris proper, these towers are still part of the urban landscape: they are physically and visually connected to the city via the Axe historique, which links La Défense with landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and Louvre. If we include La Défense, Paris actually has more skyscrapers than London, with 19 taller than 150 metres in height, compared to London’s 16.

La Défense towering on the horizon. xeno_sapien/Flickr, CC BY

So Londoners shouldn’t think that the skyscraper is an enemy of the historic low-rise city. Far from it. We need to recognise that high-rise construction can be a key tool to preserve the historic urban realm, allowing the development demanded by economic and population growth to be diverted away from historic areas, preserving their character for residents and tourists alike.

The height of the housing crisis

It’s not just high-rise office blocks that attract opprobrium: residential towers are also accused of assaulting the eyes. Currently, London is experiencing a housing crisis: 210,000 new dwellings will be needed over the next five years to cope with population growth. But future Londoners will not be forced to live in towers.

Even if all 263 of the planned skyscrapers actually get built, they will only create 14,800 new homes, meeting just 7% of the total demand for housing. The remaining 93% is likely to come from low-rise buildings, which should go some way to reassuring the skyscraper sceptics.

Another criticism of London’s residential towers is that they are creating safe-deposit boxes in the sky; investment homes for the super-rich, which will remain empty until they can be sold on for a tidy profit. While it is true there is a shameful lack of affordable housing in modern high-rise apartment blocks in London, there is little evidence that new units are going to remain unoccupied.

Houses, or homes? aesum/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

This is not to say that empty houses are not a challenge in London: in 2014 alone, more than 20,000 dwellings were vacant for longer than six months. The borough of Lambeth – home to several tall residential towers – had the highest number of empty houses, with 1,354. But the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, characterised by low-rise, high-density architecture, was placed second, with 1,250 vacant dwellings.

Empty millionaire pads aren’t only found on top of towers, but across all luxury developments, including low-rise housing. The issue of empty houses won’t be addressed by stopping the spread of skyscrapers.

Healthy variety

Detractors of the high-rise will also tell you that tall buildings are expensive to build and maintain, and unsustainable due to high energy needs. This, they say, makes the tall building unsuitable for affordable housing. Again though, this doesn’t tell the full story: while building vertically is often more expensive up front, there can be notable energy and cost savings over the longer term.

Stacking up housing allows residents to live closer to the centre of a city, giving them better access to public transportation and cultural facilities and reducing the energy needed for transit. Heating is the largest consumer of energy in our dwellings, and here tall buildings offer benefits, too. Due to their compact form, high-rise towers lose very little heat through their walls, and have been found to have the lowest heating needs of all building types. This means a reduced carbon footprint, and lower bills for residents as energy prices continue to rise.

It would be foolish for anyone to suggest London should follow the path of Dubai, Hong Kong and Shanghai and attempt to house its population entirely in tall buildings. But surely it’s just as foolish to limit all London’s future housing to terraces, or six to eight storey buildings, as those like de Botton are suggesting. London doesn’t need just one or two building types – it needs a wide mix of housing. These should probably be mostly low or medium-rise buildings, as is the case today. But they should also include strategically-placed skyscrapers, to increase population density and help London meet its desperate housing needs.