Why Boris Johnson’s high-rise ambitions will have Londoners living in the shadows

by Adam Robertson

12 November 2015

That London is in the midst of a housing crisis has become a banal fact of everyday life in the capital. So acute is the squeeze on housing that two years ago Shelter found renters were paying on average 59% of their income to their landlords, a number which is likely to have increased since.

This year the housing charity found that a first time buyer would require an income of £77k to get on the property ladder in the capital. Families are being crammed into illegal slum-sheds in back gardens and the Guardian is full of stories of young professionals leaving the south east for previously overlooked provincial cities, so absurd has the search for housing in London become. Meanwhile, the capital is set to welcome a further 1.5m people within the next 15 years, all of whom will presumably require somewhere to live.

What to do about this? Boris Johnson’s mayoralty has been working with its own answer to this question: that to do anything other than build tall is ‘absolutely crazy’.

This is the only way, Johnson suggests, London can increase the density of its housing in order to cater for its growing population and to ease the squeeze on the existing housing stock.

But is this answer really as simple as it seems?

When high rises were first adopted as a solution to London’s housing needs in the wake of the second world war a very different consensus held sway. The planners weren’t urging that London build high in order to accommodate a bulging population, but in fact the opposite.

London’s Victorian slums resulted in enormously high densities in working class districts, in which people were crammed into overcrowded rooms in poorly designed and constructed housing overshadowed by neighbouring buildings. In response to this, planners sought to reduce the density of these districts by demolishing those slums which had survived the Luftwaffe’s attentions and replacing them with modern housing estates, often incorporating high-rise towers. Some of the residents of the former slums would be rehoused in these new high-rise estates, but many others were decanted to the New Towns outside the city.

In The Proud City, a film made to explain the 1943 County of London Plan for the capital’s reconstruction after the war, Patrick Abercrombie, the author of that plan, explained this approach to house-building would ensure “plenty of light, air and space for everyone.”

These estates, built after the war, included tower blocks in part because they provided a means whereby a number of housing units on an estate could be gathered into a single point, freeing large areas to be covered in grass and used as parkland by the residents. Thus the residents in the high rise would be surrounded by open clean air, and they would be able to enjoy the benefits of open common space. There would only ever be a limited number of towers on any given estate, and they would in most cases form only one type of housing among several, suitable only for the young and childless, with families and the elderly usually housed elsewhere on the estates in low- and mid-rise buildings. This mix of a small number of high-rises among a series of lower buildings ensured no one would find their home permanently in the shadow of a high rise, as the shadows of a small number of isolated towers would sweep across lower buildings over the course of a day.

Indeed, estates containing high rises were never the densest of London’s council estates. To increase density by building tall would blot out the sun to so many residents that the result would have been as bad as the slums that so many of these towers were built to replace. Instead where councils, such as Camden, decided to push densities up as high as 200 people per acre on some sites, a mid-rise approach was taken – never building higher than six storeys, ensuring everyone retained access to light.

Where does this leave the foppish Mayor’s self-professedly sane policy to build tall?

The More Light, More Power campaign, born in response to proposals to build a procession of towers on the former Bishopsgate Goodsyard site in Shoreditch, provides an answer.

A simulation on the campaign’s website shows the effect the proposed development will have on the local area. It shows a large number of streets north of the development thrown into near-constant darkness by the enormous shadows created by the proposed towers.

These shadows will completely engulf the famous Boundary estate, completed in 1900 by the London County Council, making it the first council housing built anywhere in the world. The estate replaced one of London’s most notorious rookeries (in which people were crowded into damp rooms, many of which were below ground) with large airy rooms with good access to light. But not for much longer, it seems.

Similar scenes are repeated elsewhere, as the bright and spacious Heygate estate is replaced by a forest of towers. The towers and blocks of Convoys Wharf will soon blot out the sun for many of those fortunate enough to be able to afford the luxury apartments to be built there, and the lights begin to go out around Battersea power station, engulfed in a canyon of exorbitantly priced and foreign-owned ‘starchitecture’.

For all of the extra units of housing Johnson’s policy succeeds in cramming into new developments, his policy of blanketing whole swathes of the city in towers has a very real negative impact on the lives of those people who have to live in and near them.

Where such a negative knock-on effect was unthinkable to councils attempting to plan the rebuilt city to be as salubrious and healthy as possible for its inhabitants, contemporary developers have no such scruples. Instead, blanketing a site with high rises enables them to sweat the value of their hugely expensive land for as much as possible, insulating their bottom line.

The damage caused to the health and well-being of the citizens living in the shadows of these silos of profit is, of course, for us little people to worry about.

Photo: Nico Hogg/Flickr

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