The UK is on a high-rise trajectory and Julia Park is worried that politicians, planners and developers are failing to address the consequences 

Julia Park

If you have been watching Ade Adepitan’s BBC 2 series Climate Change: Ade on the Front Line, you might have been struck by how many major cities around the world are dominated by tall buildings. Towers are now so ubiquitous (and so similar) that it is rarely possible to guess from an image where you are in the world.

The clues are now in the topography and what is left of any planting, not in the patterns of development, the style, form or materiality of the buildings. Copenhagen was a refreshing exception.

While tall buildings have a place, they are not very good at making places and, like bad neighbours, they rarely speak to each other.

It has all happened very quickly, and in most cities, residential towers now outnumber commercial towers. While tall buildings have a place, they are not very good at making places and, like bad neighbours, they rarely speak to each other.

Globally, there is no let up, and London continues to lead the way. The current wave began under Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty. Despite his red credentials he recognised that tall buildings get you on the world map. If you play your cards right, they also bag you vast sums in developer contributions.

Boris Johnson continued the trend and it has accelerated under Sadiq Khan. The London Tall Buildings Survey, which provides an annual snapshot of high-rise developments over 20 storeys, reported a pipeline of 525 tall buildings during 2020. Another 89 were under construction. It also revealed that 88% of the tall buildings built in London during 2019 contain residential units. Before 2010, this figure was just 14%.

A similar story is unfolding in Manchester. Oliver Wainwright, the Guardian’s architecture critic and formerly of this parish, describes a city “drunk on its own success”, where “concrete liftshafts of future towers dot every corner”. He has a point.

UrbInfo’s annual Manchester Tall Buildings Report 2020 described 2019 as ”a staggering year for tall buildings in Manchester”. In late 2020, 108 tall buildings were in the pipeline. Of these, 86% are residential. It has the second-highest high-rise construction rate in Europe (surpassed only by London). The city’s residential development boom was the focus of a recent, four-part BBC 2 television documentary called Manctopia.

Meanwhile Birmingham is also “on the rise” and Leeds, Glasgow, Bristol – and even Norwich – are following the same pattern.

Should we mind and can we do anything about it if we do? At the most simplistic level, whether this is good or bad is simply ideological – you either like tall buildings or you don’t. But, while their visual impact is immediately obvious, their social impact, carbon footprint and whole-life cost are largely hidden, at least for the moment.

We cannot just lump them all together either. Some are better than others and the definition of “tall” also varies. The threshold is often 20 storeys, but in some countries anything over four storeys is defined as “tall”.

Most people think a fixed height is unhelpful because it is all about context. I know what they mean, and I sort of agree. I certainly think that 20 storeys is a blunt instrument; but let’s not kid ourselves, the last time I passed an 18-storey building (13 months ago now and counting…) it was unmistakably a “tall building”.

I resent what that has done to my relationship with the built environment and the public realm

For me there is something very fundamental about this. Most buildings are built for people – both are getting taller, but in the time it has taken for 20-storey buildings to become common in London, its adult citizens have probably grown by less than a millimetre. I resent what that has done to my relationship with the built environment and the public realm.

Beyond about eight storeys the relationship starts to break down; either the streets need to be wider, or you need to introduce gaps to provide relief. But that is a crude answer to only a small part of the problem. As the twin drivers for building higher and denser seem to be project “viability” and housing demand, developers naturally expect designers to push the boundaries to the limit. They do the best they can. What tends to be overlooked is the fact that every new tower raises local land value while sterilising the land around it. That means the next one has to be even taller to match the return.

We should also be concerned about the long-term future and carbon footprint of high-rise buildings. Climate change demands that buildings are retained for centuries, not decades. The embodied energy in high-rise residential blocks must be huge.

Our earliest residential towers were built for social housing and are now about 60 years old. While some have been successfully refurbished, many others have already been demolished. Whether you decant the whole block at once, or do it in stages, the logistical challenges are immense. It is difficult enough with social housing tenants, but imagine having to negotiate with 200 leaseholders.

I don’t think we have faced that situation yet. I worry that major refurbishment won’t happen until there is no other choice; that the buildings will be left to deteriorate over a period of years, the flats will become hard to sell, making negative equity a real possibility, and the building will gradually empty, leaving the remaining leaseholders with impossibly large bills. In the worst-case scenario, we wait until it is dangerous.

As for what we can do about it, it is hard to see how anything other than a firm stance from policymakers would work. They want numbers, too, but they must also weigh up the consequences of continuing on this high-rise trajectory and, if so, why, where and how, and when does it end?

If they decide to push on, we must design and build tall buildings not only more imaginatively but also much more responsibly. An SPG on tall residential buildings was promised during the public examination phase of the London Plan, and that would be a good start.

A report published last week by CaCHE (UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence), High-rise residential development, An international evidence review, should help to focus minds. Examining the global rise of residential towers, it considers many of the issues I have touched on here.

Providing insights into the drivers for high-rise – who lives in tall buildings and why, cultural differences and management challenges – it also touches on money laundering, and why some apartments are never intended to be occupied.

It is not passing judgment or offering solutions, but it is urging that more attention and more research is needed before we plough on. It is a timely message for everyone, but particularly those who control the future of our cities.