Super-dense schemes can work in London as long as they reinforce street spaces

Ben Derbyshire

There has been much debate in the last year over the current plans for up to 200 towers to be built in London, with many suggesting they would ruin the city’s historic skyline and disrupt the traditional urban forms which are part of what has made the capital so successful. However, I think the basis of the debate as to whether or not high rise is appropriate in London misses the point. Instead the real issue is where to locate different urban forms in relation to our street network in the interests of promoting street life.

In my last blog I considered street life as the central focus of successful placemaking. London has a long and rich history, and across its entire extent, the urban fabric of the City was – until the sixties, at least - predicated on the ordering principles dictated by the urban street. Our street network and our tradition of street life is the City’s greatest asset. Our success in creating mixed communities and a lively mixes of uses is the envy of the world, based on the street as a means of comfortably juxtaposing diverse backgrounds, cultures and activities.

Today, Londoners increasingly demand that their city should be developed as an extension of the network of these streets. Londoners expect access to all areas on ground that is in public ownership and that is policed by consent, ground that is by definition shared space and under collective control. Streets provide a recognisable physical language that reinforces public safety through passive supervision and there is a whole legislative framework which supports these principles.

There is a real danger in focusing on the skyline in the densification of London, that we will be distracted from the most important issue - which is how we maintain and reinforce streets and street life

One of the reasons London has become such a desirable global destination for people – and their money – from all around the world, is that this powerful democratic principle instills order and a sense of safety and security. So London is once again attracting people in large numbers to come and stay, and the haemorrhaging of London’s indigenous population has been staunched. Young Londoners no longer flee to safer places to bring up their children. The resulting rise in population has reopened the discussion of density and how best to accommodate ever more citizens and in what built form to create new accommodation for them.

Well, there is a real danger in focusing on the skyline in the densification of London. The risk is that we will be distracted from the most important issue - which is how we maintain and reinforce streets and street life while we build to accommodate a growing population. There are two distinct cases with different remedies for intervention - one where the population density is too low (which HTA are considering in our Supurbia project), and the other where too many people jostle for the available space and where design for Superdensity is the key.

Close to transport hubs and where there is a high intensity of commercial, retail and leisure use, pavements are so overcrowded that pedestrians jostle in dangerously uncomfortable proximity to busy traffic. Here the issue is to create more high quality outdoor space to accommodate pedestrian movement and provide a suitable environment for people to sit, rest or enjoy café life free of noise and pollution. In these places, not only is the additional cost of high rise offset by the extra value derived from proximity to transportation, but the higher plot ratios and relatively small footprints create the opportunity to make more ground level space for people to move and congregate.

Today, the environment of Tottenham Hale is a jumble of poor quality retail sheds and drive-through outlets. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant place to be

Thus in reality the question is where to locate different urban forms in relation to our street network, and the task one of creating liveable, safe, sociable and self sustaining neighbourhoods. Tottenham Hale is an excellent example to use as an illustration of how such an approach might work in practice. As a transportation hub, it brings together a tube line, a national rail line connecting central London to the regional airport at Stansted, and an important road junction with a bus interchange.

But today, the environment of Tottenham Hale is a jumble of poor quality retail sheds and drive-through outlets, and spatially completely incoherent. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant place to be and offers no incentive whatsoever to linger. So the island sites of Tottenham Hale are the right location to plant the footprint of a cluster of high-rise buildings designed in such a way that pedestrians can circulate amongst them, and enjoy cafes shops and meeting spaces away from the traffic, en route to and from trains and buses.

This is a place where as much of the ground plane as possible should be given over to people and the temptation must be avoided of filling the island sites with podia (and towers over) that force pedestrians to the edge of the sites into close proximity to the traffic. Central St Giles, at the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Shaftsbury Avenue, is a good example of how to do this well.

The design of this space between the base of the towers needs to be such as to allow sunlight and views from surrounding approaches to penetrate. The form of the tower structures therefore needs to be slender with adequate space between. Windbreaks should be incorporated at about second floor level to deflect downdrafts and provide shelter from rain for cafe goers and shoppers. Indeed, the towers themselves, disgorging occupants at ground level, would further enliven the space, contributing custom to the shops, cafes and services. Such a cluster of towers should be composed with the tallest at the centre of the group, falling away to the edges. The cluster thus not only provides a spine of circulation connecting the transport hub to its surroundings, but also acts to locate Tottenham Hale in a number of significant distant views; from across the Lea Valley, from the North Circular which passes a mile or so to the north, and from Tottenham High Street.

Thus, a placemaking analysis, with a particular focus on improving the environment for pedestrians at ground level, permitting the quiet enjoyment of pavement and public realm in a suitable microclimate, actually generates a strong argument for the vertical extrusion of built form so as to liberate and enliven the opportunity for street life. There are places, and Tottenham Hale is typical of them, where the circumstances are right for superdense schemes and we would urge that this opportunity is not overlooked, in an erroneous analysis suggesting that towers are out of place in London.

Ben Derbyshire is managing partner of HTA Design