London is straining under the weight of people who want to live and work there. There isn’t enough housing to go around. As I wrote previously, this is creating a pressure cooker, which on one hand is seeing spiralling rents, escalating house prices, and a rush of foreign-backed apartment developments, and on the other hand creating shed cities for migrant workers, middle-class commuter-villes, and social-cleansing of large inner-city housing estates such as Heygate and Robin Hood Gardens. One way to ease this pressure cooker, as Danny Dorling, George Monbiot and others argue, is to increase the occupancy of the current housing stock, either through the carrot of incentives or the stick of taxes. The other way is simply to build more houses, which has only two ways to go — upwards or outwards. But culturally, and historically, the British are too scared to do either.
Scared of heights.
Building tall in Britain is still haunted by the tragedy of Ronan Point. In 1968 a gas explosion in this high-rise block of flats in Newham, East London, killed 4 people and injured 17 more. It also almost instantly halted the building of high-rise social housing, and made Modernism a toxic ideology. An enquiry exposed the short cuts contractors were taking in the assembly and fixing of pre-fabricated panels in housing blocks, as well as emerging design flaws. As a result, experimentation in construction techniques all but dried up, and the notion of system-building was all but cast out. With Ronan Point as the catalyst, the reaction was to turn against building tall. High-rise tower blocks, now synonymous with poor quality construction, were no longer seen as a progressive solution to the narrow terraced streets they replaced. The large system-built housing estates became dumping grounds for the lowest socio-economic groups, rather than the social mix they were envisaged for. Thus was born the stigma of the housing estate.
In TV shows such as a Top Boy or films such as Attack the Block, high-rise estates are portrayed as impoverished, crime-ridden ghettos. They both reflect the reality and reinforce the stereotype that high-rise tower blocks are only for the poor. Reversing this stereotype, to make high-rise living desirable, seems inconceivable, despite the small advances seen in isolated cases such as the Barbican, or Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower and Balfron Tower. Most luxury flat ‘stunning developments’ top-out at less than 8 storeys. Generally speaking developers prefer to build small rather than tall in order to get more properties on a site.
In JG Ballard’s novel High Rise, a luxury housing block descends into disorder and anarchy as the inhabitants throw off their societal norms under the redefined social structure of the tower. But the real perversion in High-Rise is the notion that the middle-classes would aspire to live in a high-rise estate. It is the last taboo.
Fear of sprawl.
If London doesn’t want to build upwards, it is unable to build outwards. The poor may be pushed further and further out, but there is only so far you can go. This isn’t due to a lack of space, after all, according to this research, there’s more space given to golf courses than housing in England. It’s because London is constricted by a legislative tourniquet.
A leftover piece of British post-war planning legislation, the Town and Country Act of 1946, enshrines in law the Green Belt, a girdle of countryside surrounding London and other metropolitan areas of Britain. Based on Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, it was designed to relieve crowding and unsanitary conditions in London, and stop London spreading. The three main tenets of the Greater London Plan were the Green Belt, a zone where development would generally not be permitted; a series of orbital ring roads, and a network of New Towns on the outer edge of the Green Belt. 50 years on, and this visionary plan still defines the town planning framework of Greater London, and has created a perverse built environment across the whole of South East England. The Green Belt acts as a chokehold around the compressed London on one side, and a network of satellite towns and dormitory suburbs on the other side of the divide. The Green Belt itself exists as a consensual hallucination, a fictional arcadia which on closer inspection reveals a liminal inter zone of secret urbanism. With no permission for housing on any considerable scale, there exists instead a plethora of low-level development — a beltway of golf-courses, garden centres, retail parks, gypsy encampments, Premier League football training complexes, disused airfields, country estates, and abandoned lunatic asylums. Then there is the infrastructure — radial roads, train lines, reservoirs, distribution centres, canals and water treatment plants that encircle the metropolis. There’s not much natural greenery in the Green Belt, it’s all Edgelands. Finally, twisting through the ring viridian sward is the M25 orbital motorway, the Magic Roundabout, the most obvious demarcation between the city and the country beyond. The captive villages within the London Green Belt are bloated with the wealth of being in the privileged position of both in the country and often less than 20 miles from Central London. Despite all this, permission to build housing on the Green Belt, even on brownfield sites, is met with protests from pressure groups such as the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England, who still see the divide between town and country as a polar-opposite that must be maintained at all costs. Quite what vision of rural England they wish to preserve is unclear. Travel outwards slightly further from London and one encounters the post-war New Towns and 60's expansion towns built to ease the pressure on the capital — Stevenage, Basildon, Harlow, Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead, Crawley, Bracknell. The New Towns themselves were modelled on the Garden City Movement of the 1930's which begat Welwyn and Letchworth. But while the Garden Cities were designed to be self-contained and self-sufficient, the New Towns are plugged into the life support system of London through their transport links. The 60's expansion towns represents the last time the UK planning framework sought to deal with the issue of overcrowding in London by building outwards. Since then, all significant development has been within the Green Belt boundary, with the largest area developed in the Docklands to the east of the city, including the new commercial district of Canary Wharf. In Docklands during the 1980's, a laissez-faire approach to planning control created a property development gold-rush, with gated luxury condo’s the norm and almost no social or affordable housing built. Apart from the Docklands Light Railway almost no public transport infrastructure was originally built, until 2000 with the extension of the Jubilee Line and the DLR. So the question remains, where can London build next?
London expansion zones
The expansion of London is not a unique problem, it is something that many cities have looked to address, though usually with more foresight. London’s overcrowding problem is one that planners should have started to tackle 15 years ago. But it requires addressing an uncomfortable truth — we will need to concrete over some countryside. Both Paris and Moscow have announced plans for large expansion zones. The Grand Paris proposal announced in 2007 by President Sarkozy sought new visions from 10 leading architectural and urban thinkers to help guide the growth of Paris over the next 20-30 years. The plans unveiled in 2009 from architects including French architects Jean Nouvel and Christian de Portzamparc as well as overseas firms including Richard Rogers’ RSH+P and MVRDV, include a number of smaller scale urban ‘interventions’ as well as wider reaching ‘visions’. However, these ideas were largely ignored by Sarkozy, who instead unveiled plans for 10 new urban cluster ‘poles’ around Paris, an increase in house building to 70,000 home as year, and a new high-speed rail network to link up the new urban ‘poles’. As much political manoeuvring as metropolitan vision, the Grand Paris scheme is now locked in a byzantine French municipal administrative tangle. By contrast the Moscow Expansion plans are devastatingly simple, with an extensive area to south west of the existing city now zoned to be part of the metropolitan area. It’s a move that effectively doubles the size of Moscow and could allow it to double in population to 22 million people over the next 20-30 years. The first urban master planning proposal announced for this new region of greater Moscow is the winning entry of an international competition, by Capital Cities Planning Group. The proposal, called the ‘City in the Forest’, emphasises the preservation and enhancement of green space, and provides housing for 1.7 million people, with the creation of over 800,000 jobs, including a new federal district. This in turn would relieve much of the traffic congestion in the historic centre of Moscow which could then be redeveloped to be more pedestrian friendly and more reflective of its UNESCO World Heritage site status. Does London have the ambition to move forwards on such a scale, and with a guiding vision? I believe it is inevitable that London will eventually expand eastwards, to create a zone of continuous urbanism along the north Thames bank across Essex as far as Southend, and along the south Bank in Kent as far as the Isle of Sheppey, or beyond. But plans that had been drawn up for such a project, called the London Gateway, were shelved by the Conservative government, and no there is no coherent strategy in place for the eastwards expansion of London. The London Gateway Parklands master plan put forward by Terry Farrell back in 2008 remain the only articulated plan for eastwards development of London. Farrell was nobody’s fool, he realised that the only way to win support for the urban expansion of London was to focus on the provision and preservation of greenery — parkland, wetlands, woodlands, that exist along the Thames Estuary. In many ways Farrell’s proposal harked back to the Garden City movement, promising that the ‘magnets’ of the town and country can be united.
The London Gateway had started to gather a fair bit of momentum in the early 2000's with a Development Corporation formed by the Labour government to oversee planning development. But with a new Conservative Government the tide turned against this kind of top-down planning framework, and the corporation was formally abolished in 2013, in favour of the Localism Act, which has perversely placed considerable power in the hands of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to create Mayoral Development Corporations. So far BoJo’s urbanistic proclamations have bordered on whimsical flights of fancy such as an airport on a reclaimed island (“Boris Island”) in the middle of the Thames Estuary rather than the kind of solid long-range master planning that Farrell proposed. Boris Island seems to me to be a sacrificial bunt put up to make a 3rd runway at Heathrow seem more palatable. But there seems little doubt that unless we suddenly get a taste for building higher and denser within the Green Belt boundary, the Thames Estuary — whether on the Essex shore, Kent shore, or up the middle — will be the site for the majority of urban growth of London over the next 100 years. The question is whether the development will be planned, unified and rational, with ecology and infrastructure at the heart; or will it be ad-hoc, incremental and developer-led, with infrastructure retro-fitted as demand arises? Should we plan and guide how it should be, or just wait to find out what happened?