Chair Gavin Thompson, BuroHappold Engineering and Chairman of the Happold Foundation
Richard Lavington, Founding Partner – MacCreanor Lavington Architects
Selina Mason, Director Design Integration – LDA Design
Barry Coltrini, Development Executive – Essential Living
Andy Murdoch, Director Cities – BuroHappold Engineering
This conversation examined housing demand and whether this can be addressed through higher densities in cities and particularly the suburbs. Many people see the provision of housing as being part of city infrastructure, and when demand is high we should demand intervention at the same level as, for example, major transport projects. The idea of expanding cities into their green belt hinterlands is being increasing put forward as a solution, but this ignores the opportunity of suburban growth where infrastructure already exists and there is a greater need for investment in urbanism. For certain types of city dweller the ‘micro flat’ is now an acceptable housing type in the right location. Can we find the equivalent for suburban areas? How important is the urban environment and place making in the commuter belt. Can we exploit new models of housing and that look beyond ownership and traditional methods of delivery? What compromises are city dwellers prepared to make between location, density, space standards and affordability?
Overview of Conversation themes from Chair Gavin Thompson
BuroHappold’s Gavin Thompson introduced the Conversation by outlining some of the key themes of the discussion. Cities are growing all over the globe – London, for example, is set to grow by another 1m people over the next 20 years. Thompson went on to discuss how city growth is often associated negatively with density, with the idea that overcrowding is resolved by inhumane tower blocks. Reasoning that London isn’t currently that dense – the overall density of London is 5,400 people per sq km, a quarter of the density of Paris, although in some boroughs this rises to 15,000 people per sq km – he argues that the real issue is how to accommodate people empathetically
“If you look at empathy and density, rural living, has, people argue, a huge sense of empathy. And people get along and support each other despite a lack of infrastructure. In the city, many people say they’ve never met their neighbours,” Thompson explained, “There is no sense of community. So if we think about engineered solutions we need to move towards a more empathetic solution. So, the question is how much space is enough?” The UK’s average space provision currently at 30 m2 per person, with planning standards that lay down rules to protect this. But, he suggested, “lower space standards could be mitigated by the public realm – look at the impact of the High Line in New York – and the capacity of citizens for compromise for the economic gain that cities provide.”
Thompson summarised that in his opinion, density is not all bad. “Commute times are shorter, for example, and there is closer access to interesting jobs and the amenities of a city. And looking beyond the UK, we can see the impact of decline in densities in post-industrial cities such as Detroit with the attendant problems of infrastructure inefficiencies.”
Richard Lavington sees a problem in our ‘development control’ planning system. “If we want to do more dense neighborhoods we need to do so with a more forward-thinking strategic planning system”, he explained. This was highlighted by a study MacCreanor Lavington Architects did for LB Tower Hamlets’ South Quays, which brought together multiple planning applications into a single plan. The Tower Hamlets scheme had the potential to be the densest neighbourhood on the planet. Most of the applications were deficient in the support facilities required for the number of homes being proposed. Without a strategic planning overview the gain in housing provision would have been offset by the lack of a neighbourhood.
In a submission for new ideas to tackle London’s housing crisis, Lavington detailed how his firm also looked at the suburbs of London, known as ‘Metroland’. These include the interwar semi-detached developments around transport infrastructure. To tackle density in London and get towards the sort of densities there are in Paris, this is what you have to deal with. “We looked at the project in terms of typology – for example Bloomsbury, Georgian etc. Our proposition was to replace the semi-detached house – of which there are 629,607semi detached homes in London according to a Savills study – with the denser Mansion Block.” Lavington summarised. Overlay that approach with PTAL (proximity to public transport) maps and the firm identified a large number of places in the middle circle of London with good access to transport and low-density housing, and therefore with the potential for development.
To increase the density in these areas it is important to make the concept more attractive. The green idyll of the suburbs does not really exist any more, so one way could be to get back to a greener suburb whilst raising density. But the real challenge, Lavington discussed, is multiple ownership – people need to be incentivised through policy in order to act collectively. “That was the subject of much of the project,” Lavington continued. “It is a parallel stream to the ‘big company- large land ownership’ model. If you look at map of Land Use in London 5% in ‘all other buildings’ is where we concentrate our efforts – much of it the conversion of workspace to living space. That’s what is currently producing density. What we should be looking at is back gardens (24%) and existing housing (9%) and make that a little bit denser and still have the feeling that this is London and not somewhere else.”
We should also make the most of existing infrastructure – so looking for places where there is least density and good transport infrastructure. Meridian Water on the Anglian main line in Lea Valley is an example of this. It is one of the stations on the proposed Crossrail2 route. 10,000 new homes are proposed. Because of the pressure to produce density they are going to be 6 -7 storey perimeter blocks and become new urban centres.
Finally, Lavington concluded, maybe building is not the only answer. He pointed out that according to Danny Dorling in the London Census “London has enough bedrooms for everyone”. If we look at building as the solution, we are not realistically going to get there for 20 – 25 years so actually we need other policy measures to make use of the stock we have.
Barry Coltrini from Essential Living talked about how part of his work involves looking at new methods for delivering homes. Essential Living is both a developer and an operator in the private rented sector, with over 2000 units in the pipeline mostly in large converted former workspace buildings. “Our homes are based on an American model with financial backing from the US also”, Coltrini explained. “They provide density but also providing lifestyle packages to attract and maintain our customer base.”
Coltrini went on to summarise the key statistics that his work had to take into consideration. Private rental is 25% of London’s housing stock and fastest growing rental sector in the UK, with 90% properties owned by non-professional landlords. Renters are no longer just the ‘young single and transient’ demographic – there is a 20% growth in young families, 7% increase in single parent families and 37% of the market is over-35 year olds.
“68% of Essential Living’s customer base are working professionals, so our product needs to adapt to those changing demographics and create a community of people who will stay,” Coltrini highlighted. “It is proven that ‘making friends’ is a key factor in this, so we make the top floor – which is also the most valuable -a communal space.” Known as ‘the hub’, this space provides small and large indoor and outdoor communal spaces. On the ground floor the firm aim to provide a more cultural approach than the usual coffee shop and supermarket approach. They have family spaces – more play areas with blocks purely for young families and on site nurseries etc. There are also work and quiet spaces, as not all community space is social. There are even ‘pet floors’. “It is all about ‘customer focus’ – these spaces are all included in the rental package to make it attractive.” Coltrini summarised.
This approach answers a social need with a commercial response. Where it succeeds is by providing so much more facility than other housing sectors can provide. It can be questioned on some wider issues – the broader community and workplace in particular. A member of the audience accused it of being a ‘dystopian vision’. However, a lifestyle model such as this answers many needs that those pursuing density as a solution need to answer. People will compromise on space standards if the shared facilities compensate for this – they can even create a community around a home. Coltrini concluded that it was still early days for these ideas.
BuroHappold’s Andy Murdoch also sees a more dynamic approach to planning as a route to greater density. London has plenty of scope to increase density and he is positive about the increase in the quality of space and opportunities that have already been achieved. During the Conversation he detailed his recommendations for a balance of approach – including increase the amount of big infrastructure, adapt our existing infrastructure and changing the way we behave. Of these, adaptability is a really important factor. Demand isn’t static – varies throughout the month by the day even – so we need to be more dynamic in planning to respond to the way our systems work.
“In the past,” Murdoch discussed, “we would build transport links and develop around them. Now we need to adapt this legacy according to different types of demand – density included. This is not to ignore the suburban problem of ownership or the challenge of new lifestyle that the rental model brings. But these seem to avoid the community aspect altogether.” He detailed that this can be addressed through small projects with big impacts. Cycling in Kingston is one such example – Kingston is a prosperous low-density borough, but people avoid the town centre. Making the centre more attractive to cycling can liberate development. In 2011 50,000 people said they would travel by bike, and there is now the potential to double that. Providing more opportunities to cycle will also take movement in the town back to a slower pace with a proposal to have a 15mph limit.
The panel discussed if this scheme was an example of ‘the civilizing role of infrastructure’. By ‘planting small seeds’ in an urban environment we layer on elements that help us get rid of other unwanted aspects of infrastructure. Whether this will encourage communities to feel more at ease with greater density is perhaps a question that cannot yet be answered.
The abiding motif of the Conversation was that increasing density is an essential ingredient in achieving the city growth that is required. But targets for density are just numbers and they are meaningless without the more subjective metrics of lifestyle and wellbeing which are still relatively new to us. While we may have solutions we don’t necessarily have definitive answers to how density is achieved successfully, intelligent adaptability seems to be essential for the new wave of homes in the city.
Suggested follow-up workshop topics.
- Is home ownership a shrinking aspiration and what impact will it have on the city if so?
- Living in a microflat: Is space an issue?
- Ownership patterns in the suburbs. Changing the un-chageable.
- 20 small projects with big impacts (in my neighborhood).
- 20 examples of ‘intelligent adaptability’ for engineering / infrastructure and places.
- A High Line for London?