The view from Sacré-Cœur: on Paris, London and the case for urban density

Sacre-Cœur, seen from the Arc de Triomphe. Image: Aarya0141/Wikimedia Commons.

I’d promised myself I’d only go to new bits of Paris on this trip. There is a danger, in returning to a city you know a little, that you return to the places you already know: that you latch onto that which already feels familiar. This, at least, is the only way I can rationalise the fact I’ve been to La Défense – which is, whatever one says about its innovative architecture, fundamentally a suburban office park – three times now.

And Paris is, on any reasonable definition, big: though I’ve been enough times to have lost count, there are huge parts of it that I’ve never seen. So this time, I told myself, in the hours I had free to explore between meetings, I would go to new places.

But then, on an undistinguished boulevard somewhere in the 19th, I noticed something: the buildings were taller than the trees. And I knew I had to go back to Sacré-Cœur.

* * *

I spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly around cities – so much so that finding interesting new walks in London, at least ones easily joined from anywhere near my flat, is becoming increasingly difficult to do. I’ve long ticked off most of the obvious ones: the riverside paths, the greenways, the London Loop, a 150 mile look of largely dull suburban streets, interspersed with stretches of greenery and the occasional airport.

More promising is the Capital Ring, which orbits central London at roughly the point the inner city turns to suburbia, and which I love so much I’ve done much of it three times. On my last time round, I noticed something odd: whenever you’re on relatively high ground, and have a viewpoint from which to look down on the city around you, it’s remarkably hard to find it.

Looking out from Horsendon Hill, near Wembley, or from the stretch of the New River behind Manor House which looks north down towards Harringay, a large chunk of the view is taken up by trees. There are buildings, sure – but they often seem to be separated by vast stretches of greenery. If you didn’t know you were looking at a city, you’d be hard pressed to identify it as such.

The view west from Horsendon Hill, near Wembley. That's suburbia down there. Image: Jonn Elledge.

It isn’t all trees, of course: from both these places you’re actually looking out over a network of suburban streets. Even looking west from Richmond Hill, where you really are looking out towards some of the greenest, plushest suburbs on the borders of Surrey, there are still homes for a few hundred thousands of people down there hidden beneath the trees.

From high ground, though, you can’t necessarily see that. It’s not that the trees are all there is: they’re just taller than most of the houses. So looking down at distant suburbs from a slight elevation, what you’ll often see is a landscape of trees and parks and playing fields with occasional high rises or office blocks poking above the treeline. The endless repeated streetscape that characterises most of London is invisible.


These are all views of the suburbs, of course: the same trend is much less pronounced if you look down from any of the viewpoints in inner London (Primrose Hill, say, or the viewing gallery of the new Tate Modern). There are more taller buildings; there are fewer obvious trees.

But what you still won’t see, by and large, are the sort of private homes many Londoners actually live in. If for some reason you find yourself wanting an idea of what London looks like from above, your best bet is to look out of an aeroplane on its final approach to Heathrow.

So I went back to Sacré-Cœur because of a sneaking suspicion that in Paris – a comparable European city, of roughly the same size and roughly the same age – this wasn’t actually true.

* * *

Montmatre, if you’ve never done the rounds of tourist Paris, has seen edgier days. A century ago, it was the home of the Parisian avant-garde, and provided homes for artists including Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh. Nowadays, it’s mostly dominated by foreigners paying through the nose for a small drink.

But it does also have the huge white Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, which stands 80m tall on a 130m hill. It’s a stunning sight in itself, a great white church whose spires reach as high of the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, but it’s not nearly as stunning as the view from its steps. You can see the whole of the city centre, two miles south, in one glance, and mile upon mile of pale stone mansion blocks beyond it. It’s worth the climb, is what I’m saying here.

The view from Sacré-Cœur, looking towards the eastern suburbs of Paris. Image: Jonn Elledge. 

The reason I decided to make that climb again, despite the fact I’ve done it perhaps half a dozen times already, is because I wanted to check I was remembering the view right. And I was: the dominant colour of the world viewed from the steps of Sacré-Cœur is not green, but white. It’s a landscape not of trees, but of buildings.

Human architecture dominates the view because Paris is dense enough that the buildings tower above its trees. And unlike in London, where most high rises are office blocks or social housing of the sort the state has let rot for too many decades now, these are the places where most Parisians live.

* * *

London, as I may have mentioned before, has a housing crisis. There are all sorts of reasons for that – the boom of the last two decades, the financialisation of housing in fashionable cities worldwide, capital’s flight to safety in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the strict limits the city’s authorities place on what we can build and where.


But one of the reasons is that London is so low. Most of suburbia is made up of two storey 1930s houses; there are parts of zone 1 where the streets still stand two storeys high. Last year I walked from Upminster, on the city’s eastern fringes, back to central London. That walk took me on the fringes of Docklands, where London has been sprouting skyscrapers for three decades now, and except for a couple of miles of parkland between Hornchurch and Dagenham, I largely stuck to main roads. All the same, it was only at Aldgate, as I reached the City, that the buildings started to get above four storeys with any regularity.

This may not be sustainable. London’s housing crisis is ultimately part of a bigger space crisis: the shortage of offices or industrial space get talked about rather less regularly, but are, nonetheless, real. And the reason for all that is because the physical floorspace of the city is constrained not just by policies like the green belt but by the height of the buildings. In some places, and to some extent, fixing London’s problems will mean reaching for the sky.

Paris has its own problems – the stench of urine that greets you on leaving Gare du Nord is not the most important, but it does tend to be the first to leap to mind – but something it does well is to house a lot of people in a very small area. Paris proper – the bit run by the mayor, roughly equivalent in size to London’s zones 1 & 2 – has a population of 2.2m. That gives it a population density of 21,500 per km2, significantly higher than even the densest London borough, Islington, which manages 16,000. (Inner London as a whole manages just 10,000.)

A map of Paris proper super-imposed on London. The former is around twice as densely populated as the latter. Image: CityMetric.

Yet Paris, it hardly needs saying, is not a Bladerunner-style highrise hellscape: another thing you can see from Montmatre is quite how few proper skyscrapers it has, far fewer than London these days. Wandering the streets you rarely notice quite how tall the buildings around you are. But they are: six or seven storey mansion blocks, filled with apartments that, while having a coffee or a glass of wine at the place on the corner you might have caught yourself coveting.

This, incidentally, is something else that’s worth hammering home here. The density of Paris makes Paris better. Every corner will have its bars and cafes and restaurants and corner shops. There’s a level of street life that is absent from the back streets of London, where there are pubs and parades of corner shops but also huge stretches of nothing but houses. Go to another city, one built around the car – Birmingham, say, or one of the sprawling north American monstrosities – and you’ll be lucky even to get that, and amenities are so far apart that moving around on foot becomes not just difficult but pointless. Building a city at higher density can make a city more worth living in.

* * *

I’ve written a lot about the green belt, and the need to extend London’s footprint to solve its housing crisis. I stand by that, for all sorts of reasons I’m not going to bore you with here.

But something else we could and should be doing is to build higher in the city that already exists. Both the fragmentation of land ownership, and the infuriating power of the NIMBY lobby means that this won’t be easy. The frankly embarrassing quality of most new build apartment blocks, all tiny rooms and antiseptic beige corridors, like student halls but for 30 somethings, won’t help either.

But Paris is a reminder that it can be done, and be done well. A dense city doesn’t need to look like a dystopia; indeed, a streetscape of apartment blocks which sit atop cafes and bars and shops can often by a livelier, more interesting place than one where everyone jealously guards their own tiny castles.

There will always be a place for traditional British low rise housing. But a world city like London should not be afraid to outgrow its own trees.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.

Trade-offs

In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?


Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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