London is not a low-rise city

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Up or Out? How is London going to grow? Many planned new towers have prompted a backlash from some wishing to preserve London’s skyline. But is London’s self-image as a low-rise city really justified? Quod’s report with homelessness Charity Shelter uses new analysis to look at how tall London really is.

London is not the low-rise suburban city of our imagination. Even beyond the existing
and emerging clusters of towers, a view across London is almost always peppered with taller buildings of different kinds – from council-built social housing, to suburban office blocks. Nearly half of all England’s high-rise apartments are in London. That’s 28,000 London homes on the 10th floor or higher, of which 43% are in outer London.

For most parts of the city, the era when the tallest building was the local church passed generations ago. Around two thirds of Londoners already have at least one tall building in their own neighbourhood (that is, living within 800m of a building over 30m high).

You can explore the data behind this analysis in the map below. Scroll and zoom around the map here to see buildings over 30m high (the London plan definition of tall buildings) in yellow, and those taller than St Pauls in red.

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UPDATE (04/04/16): I’ve now added other cities to the map below, which has meant slightly altering the key too. Yellow is still over 30m, orange is over 75m and red is over 100m. It now also covers central parts of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, and Newcastle/Gateshead.

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You can explore the London height map full page here.

This is Environment Agency LIDAR data – heights measured by laser from a plane! – so it records any structure, including incinerator chimneys, the odd electricity pylon and even a mighty Redwood tree in Kew Gardens. But on the whole, they’re quite ordinary buildings. There are the clusters of very tall buildings in central London, but even more numerous are the tall offices and residential towers scattered across the capital.

Mid-rise and taller buildings are not new, even in outer London, and accepting more high-quality taller buildings is one way that more homes could be built. The visibility of new towers like the Shard belies the difficulties in building upwards in London. Planning policy protects a range of strategic views, particularly of St Paul’s and Parliament, and these corridors crisscross much of central London.

Planning designations that can Constrain Tall Buildings

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Even outside these corridors, proposals for taller buildings may be blocked for their effect on the character and setting of listed buildings, world heritage sites, and conservation areas – which between them cover a fifth of Greater London, including a majority of Inner London. And of course London’s five airports and aerodromes have essential height restrictions that extend many miles around. Even where building height is not directly constrained by policy, rules on density could effectively limit heights.

Some of these constraints on height must remain, but there are policy choices to be made about where and how they are applied that could have a big overall effect on how much housing can be built.

Good design is essential to make density work well, and tall buildings do not automatically equate to high density – 1960s-style towers surrounded by grass were sometimes a less efficient use of land than more traditional terraced streets. However there are limits to how much housing can be delivered with low-rise streets. Without towers, Opportunity Areas like Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea would contribute far fewer new homes.

The question for the new mayor will be how many other areas could support taller buildings, and where to strike the balance between protecting the current skyline and allowing a change in heights.

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The analysis here comes from a report produced by Quod and Shelter, looking at the options for the next London mayor to deliver a doubling of housebuilding. The full report can be downloaded here: quod.com/brownfield_not_enough

And I’ve posted here on two other sections of the report, Garden Cities and Brownfield.

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