How to house London’s surging population? Banish “boxland”

1,220 sites across the capital are currently occupied inefficiently by single-storey retail and industrial sheds

May 21, 2018
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To say that London faces an enormous set of challenges as it grows is a timid understatement. Calls for more housing have been repeated so many times they have lost their sense of urgency. With a population projected to grow by 70,000 a year up to 10.5m by 2041, London also needs schools, shops, amenities and space for tens of thousands of new jobs. Workplaces must accommodate all manner of economic activity from small start-ups to big logistics and a spectrum of offices and light industry in between.

To prepare for such levels of unprecedented growth, the Mayor has put forward an ambitious new London Plan draft which is expected to replace the existing 2016 plan by 2019.

At the heart of the new plan is the aim to make better use of London’s land by intensifying development within the city’s boundaries without encroaching on the Green Belt. London’s individual boroughs are being challenged to meet demanding targets and find suitable sites to accommodate a variety of competing uses.

Under such pressure, the tendency is to build upwards. But while there is a place for tall buildings, the drive for higher density will only work if the public accept it. To encourage local communities to embrace life in a higher density environment, we must think laterally too and champion a more familiar London vernacular. That means creating more mixed-use London-like neighbourhoods, with terraced housing, mansion blocks and mid-rise blocks set within traditional street patterns and combined with amenities and workplaces.

Done well, higher densities can be a force for good. A concentration of people means more economic activity to support better shops. It also means more council tax and business rates to support local services. A tighter knit urban fabric can be healthier by encouraging people to walk rather than rely on cars.

There is an opportunity to build these kinds of mixed-use traditional style neighbourhoods on a plethora of sites currently occupied inefficiently by single-storey big box retail and industrial sheds.

In Policy Exchange’s latest report, Better Brownfield, we identify 1,220 sites across London which we calculate could accommodate between 250,000 and 300,000 new homes alongside commercial uses. There is enormous potential to transform these sites into a more popular London style with higher densities integrated with the fabric of the city.

We suggest how this might be done by reimagining one of the sites in zone 2 as a London-like neighbourhood. The real site currently hosts a mix of single storey commercial buildings surrounded by otherwise unused land and car parking.

The hypothetical redevelopment demonstrates how we might deliver more homes that Londoners need, without losing the commercial floorspace, by using the space more intensively and creatively. You can achieve higher densities through a mixture of medium rise apartments, mansion blocks and terraced houses.

Under one scenario, the redesign would deliver an increase in density of 355 per cent by building a mix of buildings—from three storey terraced houses to eight storey mixed use blocks—set along traditional street patterns.

It would be crucial to get local communities on board. This is why we are proposing that the Greater London Authority adopt the principle of “Community Codes”—design codes worked up with local residents to define standards of what is acceptable in terms of optimum land use, design and style at the outset.

None of this is easy. Building well-integrated mixed-use development is hard, particularly if a site is operational and delivering high land values. But given that competition for plots has never been fiercer, we must think more creatively about making the very best use of that space.

It’s been done before. London has evolved over the centuries into a complex network of streets; many of them residential, lined with tight-knit terraced housing, others accommodating offices big and small, industrial warehouses, squares and parks.

London’s popularity and success as a global city is in many ways a product of this built environment. The Mayor has made great play about instigating “good growth” which delivers a “more socially integrated and sustainable city, where people have more of a say and growth brings the best out of the existing places while providing opportunities to communities.”

Our proposals for Better Brownfield fit that brief. Good growth needs good density. It’s time to banish boxland.