Londoners now take for granted the facilities, amenities and urban buzz of which they are a part. With that comes a rising population and urgent need for more housing. It’s hard to imagine that there were five decades before 1984 when London, along with cities across the Western world, were depopulating. This depopulation coincided with some ideologies in planning and architecture which, along with the rising use of the automobile, created a built environment the like of which the world had never seen before.
Before this time and left to their own devices, human beings across the globe and through millennia built houses for shelter and working space, organising themselves collectively in a sophisticated spatial arrangement, commonly known as streets. Street networks are good for community infrastructure, but late 20th-century development swept them away in an attempt to not only clear slums and eliminate poverty, but establish a new architectural order.
The resulting housing estates – collections of apartment blocks and towers, in open spaces – were not only built at a low density, but physically and deliberately cut off from the arteries of the city and their local communities. As such, they lack the arteries which carry the city’s prosperity and lifeblood, so inhabitants lack the life chances of those on permeable well-connected streets with a variety of human activity on them. Some housing estates have now become places of last resort, not first choice for the increasing numbers of people now coming to the city.
London needs at least 50,000 new homes each year, of all tenure types, roughly double the current supply, to accommodate incomers to the city and demand from its growing population – at all wealth levels. Land cost and availability is a major factor limiting increased housing supply so every plot of land, public and private, residential and commercial, is now coming under scrutiny. How many of these can become great new neighbourhoods, truly part of London’s city fabric?
Our analysis has suggested that there is, theoretically, room for up to one million households within London’s city boundaries, if only existing built land can be better utilised and densities improved in areas with good transport links. Some, but by no means not all, of this land is in public, local authority housing estates. If some were to be rebuilt and others were to have their arteries repaired, and reintegrated into London’s wider street pattern, numerous benefits would result for residents.These neighbourhoods could be more popular, becoming part of London’s rich streetscape once more.
Disruptive? Yes. Difficult to achieve? Yes. Requiring new models of finance, development and ongoing ownership? Yes. But also enlarging the popular, high-density, high-intensity, mixed-use, mixed-tenure city that we all love. And, whisper it soft, also on the list of potential land should be the under-utilised and inefficient commercial buildings and parts of suburbia around good transport nodes.
Arguably, it is time for Londoners to budge up a bit so we can all enjoy life in the city.
This blog was first published by 'City AM' on 11 January, 2016