Published BD 7th August 2018
There is a tower in Cork, at 17 storeys it is not a very tall tower even if it is reputed to be the tallest in Ireland. It was completed just before the Celtic Tiger crashed and is only now fully occupied by bright young things working for Apple and other tech firms that have made Cork their European base. It is called the Elysian Tower, no, doubt named by a marketing firm long before the film of the same name was released. For those of you who have not seen the film, the elysians are a leisured elite orbiting in a giant space ship over the earth that has become one immense shanti town – spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well.
The Academy of Urbanism has just held its 13th Congress in Cork and much of the debate revolved around our keynote speaker, Richard Florida, who was talking about just this sort of issue. It is fair to say that there was a degree of hostility in the hall towards Richard, not so much for what he was saying, but to some of the language used. To our ears the language of class grated a little; the ‘creative class’ (the elysians you might call them) and the servant class (sorry ‘service’ class) who would no doubt be living back on shanti town earth.
Florida has rightly pointed out that the success of cities in the modern age revolves around the Creative Class, a group that makes-up between 30 and 50% of a city’s population. He was the first to show, for example, the remarkable correlation between the percentage of gay people in a city and its economic success – and to be heavily criticised by conservative groups for doing so. The creative class are liberal, openminded types who are attracted to diverse tolerant places. Companies deciding where to locate seek out these people and therefore also like tolerant open diverse cities, even if it means paying over the odds to be in New York, London and Dublin. As he describes it, in coming up with this idea he turned on its head economic theory about where companies locate and got city authorities to thing very differently about how to make their cities attractive to these magic people.
But, as his new book relates, it has all gone too far. The economic pressures resulting from the conversion of cities to this creative economy has pushed up values to the point that inequality has spiralled out of control and the service class can no longer afford to live within reach of where they work. The result is both socially unacceptable and self defeating (because it is damaging to the creative economy). Artists will be squeezed out, start-up business will struggle to find premises and workers, and the city will become the sanitised domain of the rich and boring (or so Kevin Baker argues in his cri de cœur about the death of New York from affluence).
The delegates at Congress weren’t so sure. Florida presents his arguments as if this is a world crisis but, what of cities like Helsinki that seem immune to the crisis despite a thriving creative economy? Indeed one might argue that the crisis only really affects the English speaking world in thrall to the free market and disdainful of welfare systems and particularly social housing. Proper social housing was always the way that we dealt with the problems of creating mixed communities in expensive cities – housing that isn’t subject to the vagaries of a market in which foreign investors use it as a safe place to put their money, heedless of the need to actually house people.
But take the argument a step further and maybe it isn’t even the whole of the English speaking world. It affects Dublin but not really Cork, London but less so Britain’s provincial cities. The Elysians in their tower in Cork have not made the city unaffordable, not yet at least. As we heard the city is planning to grow rapidly over the coming decades and it is within the power of the city authorities to shape how this growth takes place. Florida was right to identify the importance of the creative class and the transformation of Cork through companies like Apple is amazing. But the new urban crisis is the result of the unfettered workings of the market rather that a bunch of tech workers in a tower with an inappropriate name. We need to learn from Scandinavia and elsewhere in order to create inclusive cities that can withstand the pressures of success. Otherwise we might just as well go back to the declining cities that were the norm until the last few decades.
Published BD 2nd October 2018
Shock news from Manchester this week, the planning committee actually refused a tower, well it wasn’t quite a refusal, they were ‘minded’ to refuse and this only on the casting vote of the chair. The proposed 35 storey tower, promoted by Logik, the developer fronted by the former cricketer Freddy Flintoff was admittedly virtually in the grounds of the Grade II* St George’s Church as well as being in a conservation area, but to be honest such considerations have not noticeably concerned the city’s planners in the past.
If Manchester has a tall buildings policy it would appear to run to just two words – ‘yes please’. As the graphic of Manchester’s changing skyline by Savills demonstrates there are seven towers, taller than the Logik tower currently under construction in Manchester including Simpson Haugh’s Owen Street B which, as it tops out at 64 storeys is already dwarfing their nearby Beetham Tower which has dominated the city’s skyline since its completion in 2006. However before long this too will be exceeded by the 67 storey Trinity Island scheme by Child Graddon Lewis architects and joined by 11 further towers that have been consented in the city with more planned in neighbouring Salford.
My guilty secret is that I’m quite excited by Manchester’s burgeoning skyline. It has a thrill that reminds me of Chicago and is actually quite in keeping with Mancunians’ brash, self-confident, f**k you attitude. There, I said it out loud, I know its wrong but I can’t help myself!
But from an urbanist’s perspective are towers so wrong? Sure there are many good arguments against them. Some relate to a feeling of unease at the excess that they represent. This is particularly true of the luxury, apartment towers in London bought as investment and left unoccupied. But the Manchester towers on the whole are PRS (private rented apartments funded by pension funds) mixed with a few hotels so that this is less of an issue. Property colleagues fret about the glut of housing coming onto the market and the unwritten rule that the building of towers presages a property crash. This is a very real concern but it relates to the volume rather than form of development. There are also strong sustainability arguments about tall buildings using more energy and the effect that they have on local microclimate as I notice every evening as I am buffered by sudden gusts of wind on my cycle ride home. Then of course there are arguments over conservation although these, as we say, have never really troubled Manchester except perhaps for Ian Simpson’s proposal for an upturned dometo limit building heights around the town hall.
From an urbanist perspective we can turn, as always, to Jan Gehl who argues that any property above the 6th floor of a building has no relationship with the street and might as well be in a far-flung suburb. But is that really true? It is a long time since people sitting on their balconies below the 6th floor held conversations across the street. People in towers will exit via the foyer at some point (even if many of the PRS schemes include their own communal lounges, gyms and cafes). Would the streets of New York or Chicago be as lively if all the towers were cropped at 6 storeys? The reality, as Gehl has also pointed out, is that places like his home city of Copenhagen were full of life a hundred years ago because its apartments were crammed with families of up to ten people. The same properties today are occupied by single people, couples and small families so that the density of occupation is maybe a quarter of what it was. What is more, all this private internal space means that people can live their lives indoors, rather than out on the street, as they were forced to do in the overcrowded past. So maybe we need to build higher if we want really lively streets?
The key point in determining whether towers add or detract from the city is their design. Modern towers will only contribute to the city if they hit the street, like those of Chicago rather than those of Dubai. If they rise from the pavement have active frontages and disgorge their activity into the life of the street then they can be a force for good. Compared to this the towers of Dubai and elsewhere, rise from shopping and leisure podia, built over underground car parks and set within landscape so that their life is internalised. This is not a lesson entirely learned by the architects of Manchester’s towers. Some, like the Beetham Tower, relate very well to the street with the bar and reception of the Hilton Hotel visible behind floor-to-ceiling glazing and generating a constant buzz of activity. But some of Manchester’s other planned towers are, I fear, more Dubai than Chicago. We should stop worrying about the top of these building and focus instead on the bottom.
First published BD 10th September 2019
Earlier in the summer I sat listening to an architect teaching urban design in one of our architecture schools. He started promisingly by showing a site which I recognised as being one of ours. However he ruined it almost immediately by then imposing a caricature of a plan (not ours) over the site and saying; ‘this is conventional urban design it is not what we do in this department’. He then showed a short film clip of one of the small squares in Manhattan, teaming with people, buskers and a craft stalls before announcing that this was the sort of urban design that they taught in the department. The next two days were spent looking at student work with beautifully done CGIs and photomontages, looking very much like that square in New York. Except that the people, buskers and craft stalls were photo-shopped rather than being real and many were in shown in locations where such urban vitality would just never happen.
The point is that the lively square was that way, at least in part, because of those boring old conventional urban design rules. You need a permeable hierarchy of streets and spaces, you need a certain density and mix of uses, you need some sense of urban enclosure, you need passive overlooking, active ground floors etc… to generate the people and activity that makes such spaces so successful.
This has been preoccupying me over the summer given that my conventional old urban design company has been invited by Lucy Montague at the Manchester School of Architecture to co-curate an urban design atelier for fifth and sixth years. The problem is that architect schools tend teach their students to design buildings as objects. How many degree shows have you seen where the main project is a building shoehorned into a city street with party walls on either side? You are much more likely to come across buildings as beautiful jewels surrounded by nothing. This presents a problem in teaching urban design in architecture schools because students can’t easily shine in the way that they need to get the best degree within an urban design context.
This is also true of the profession – the architect news-feeds that I get on my computer every day (including BD) are full of buildings as sculptural objects in splendid isolation. Many architects tend to treat urban design in the same way; masterplans that start with the building and work outwards to the plan or sometimes treat the entire masterplan as if it was one enormous piece of architecture. Urban design works in the opposite direction – the plan comes first, then the public realm and the infrastructure, then the lots and plots, each with their rules for how they can be built. So dull!
Nobody likes rules, particularly when you are being creative, and architects are taught quite rightly to question and challenge the rules. They seem to see the rules of urban design like the Paladian rules of classical proportion, something that is interesting but essentially outdated and irrelevant to modern practice. This is not helped by all of those Poundburyesque masterplans with their strange mix of medieval and Georgian design that give the impression that urban design is a profession set on creating a pastiche of the past whether it be Georgian Bath or indeed Manhattan.
But there are rules that architects can’t ignore – the rules of structure and gravity of course (skyhooks aside) but just as important are the characteristics of us as humans. This is why we have the Vitruvian Man or Corbusier’s Modulor. Even the most radical architecture is scaled to our needs as humans to move around, to climb stairs, to live and work in comfort, to have access to light and air etc… The rules urban design are no different, except they relate to our behaviour collectively. How we move around, how we react to each other as friends or strangers, how we live as communities while maintaining our privacy, our need for constant stimulation, the scale of spaces in which we feel comfortable, the distance at which we can recognise people etc… This is the point that Jan Gehl has been making for most of his career. The point is that the rules are hard-wired into us as a species, they are not stylistic or reactionary. If you ignore them you will end up with dull lifeless places however many people you photoshop into the drawing.
First published as a column in BD 31st Oct 2019
A few years ago I asked a volume house builder client of ours why it took them so long to build-out their large sites. This was prompted by a news report at the time suggesting that, at current build rates, Ebbsfleet Garden Village would take more than 70 years to deliver (it has since speeded up). I put to him the widely-made accusation that the big house builders were restricting supply in order to keep prices high. His response was that on a big site they could be out of pocket by tens of millions before selling the first house. In no way was it in their interest to slow down sales given their borrowing costs. If anyone could tell them how to sell more that the one or two units a week from each sales office then they would love to hear from them.
Well Sir Oliver Letwin has just delivered a report to the UK Chancellor doing just that. Commissioned at the time of the 2017 budget he was asked to explore the gap between the number of new homes consented and the numbers delivered and how we might increase the latter. The report largely endorses the view of my housebuilder client and while it doesn’t make particularly comfortable reading for the industry, the first two thirds will not worry them unduly. However it ends with a radical twist that is very much in line with our thinking in our 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize essay and which could change everything.
The amount of new housing is affected by two broad factors – ‘delivery rates’ and ‘absorption rates’. The former is the speed at which we can build new homes and the latter is the speed at which they can be sold. Letwin identifies a number of delivery issues such as lack of transport infrastructure and site remediation but dismissed their impact on delivery. The only delivery issue that really worries him is a lack of skilled labour although he manages to duck the Brexit issue, arguing instead for ‘a five year flash programme of on-the-job training’.
The real problem according to the report is the absorption rate, and while he doesn’t say this out loud, the message is that you will never sell more homes if you keep building the same old stuff. There are only so many people in each housing market who want to buy a mass housebuilder three bed semi. The answer is to increase the diversity of housing on large sites in areas of high demand and much of the report is devoted to the policy levers that could make this happen.
Large sites are defined as those over 1,500 units and no breaking up your large site into chunks that are smaller than the threshold – planning authorities will be able to designate these large sites in their plans. Areas of high demand are not defined and, as someone who works across the country, I’m not sure why these proposals shouldn’t be applied across the board.
For private sites the proposal is to make the housing mix on site a reserved matter so that reserved matters applications will need to show how they are going to provide a mix of unit sizes, tenures and types, including custom-build and self-build. The idea of diversity is widened to include more distinctive settings, landscapes and streetscapes and emphasises the importance of masterplanning which is of course very welcome. This can all be provided by the same developer, since Letwin has retreated from his initial idea that sites should be broken, up but he does encourage the house builders to work with smaller specialist developers. Up to this point the report leaves you with the feeling that none of this will do any harm but that there is plenty of scope for the army of planning consultants and lawyers who buzz around housing sites to water it down, to argue viability and to carry on broadly as they are with some token changes.
However at this point the report gets all radical and sets out a range of proposals that are very much in line with what myself and my colleague Nicholas Falk have been promoting. It suggests that local authorities should be able to designate large sites in future plans along with strong masterplanning, design codes, infrastructure and housing mix requirements that could reduce the value of the land to as little as 5% of what it would be worth with an unencumbered planning consent. In theory this would reset the UK housing land market to values of around £100,000 per acre, which would be comparable to Holland and Germany and would allow much more to be spent on the quality of what is built. However we would agree with Letwin’s analysis that there is a huge gap between theory and practice in British planning and this can’t be relied upon.
So he goes on to propose a change in primary legislation to allow local authorities to acquire large sites that they are designating in their local plan at the ‘value which such land would have in the absence of the development scheme’ which I think means existing use value. They would then be able to set up some form of development corporation (various models are suggested) to act as ‘master developer’ for the site. This master developer would be responsible for the masterplan and design coding, the strategic infrastructure and for parcelling up development sites for onward disposal (probably via long leases) to developers. Exactly! That is what we have been saying all along. That is how it is done across most of Europe and, until we grasp the nettle, we continue to produce the same old stuff.