Residential development is about more than just building houses; it’s about building homes that promote culture, help communities thrive and enrich the local area. In recent years this mission has been neglected in Britain, especially in London.
There has been an excessive focus on high-density behemoths that jostle in the sky, fighting for our attention.
This constant need to go bigger and better has led to a lack of appreciation for the bonds of heritage and community fostered by a healthy balance of heights, their orientation and the blend of tenures within them.
We need to build more homes and quickly, but this must be done in a way that acknowledges developments’ long-lasting impact on people and places. Their social impact lasts a lifetime or more and must be seriously considered.
The high-rise trend shows no sign of abating. A 2017 report by New London Architecture showed significant growth in tall-building completions, and more than 90% of tall buildings are residential. A glass jungle of only Corbusier-esque ‘cities in the sky’ is far from ideal; planners, architects and developers need to carefully consider the consequences. What’s more, the planning system must embrace the balanced provision of both residential street development and skyscrapers.
The false dichotomy between low rise and low density couldn’t be more wrong, with many of London’s most attractive streets, such as many in Pimlico, being low rise and high density. These schemes are part of Britain’s urban heritage and rather than replacing the diverse history with high rises, we should develop in a way that respects the existing urban fabric, while meeting housing needs, as these aims are not mutually exclusive.
Cultural and investor benefits
Ample research has shown that people living on the upper floors of high-rise buildings often feel detached from the community, which has an impact on social engagement in densely populated areas. Urban designers and planners have been debating this since Jane Jacobs’ seminal 1961 study The Death and Life of Great American Cities convincingly argued that low-rise living fosters a sense of community and local pride, rather than the anonymity of high-rise living. Lower-rise buildings also put more eyes on the street, contributing to safety and community cohesion.
Low-rise, low-density development also has big economic benefits, including increased tourism, employment in traditional construction trades and lower restoration costs. So a mix of scale will help deliver not just cultural benefits, but also strong returns for investors.
Our design work on London Square’s 94-apartment Quebec Way scheme at Canada Water sought to revitalise the idea of low-rise community living. Green zones, retail spaces and a blend of tenures, combined with elegant brickwork facades, create a building that sustains a dynamic community while remaining pleasantly eye-catching from the pavement edge. For Assael, the project was about recapturing the magic of the urban streetscape in all its low-rise glory.
It may have become a cliché to say in these columns that there is no silver bullet to solve the housing crisis – but there really isn’t. While our industry, with help from government, goes hell for leather trying to deliver the homes the UK desperately needs, we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that the buildings we create shape the individuals and communities that occupy them. There is no reason why we can’t prioritise architectural beauty in our cities at the same time as upholding a commitment to building vibrant communities.
Our broken housing market throws up many questions. But architects, planners and developers need to avoid always looking skyward for answers.