To solve London’s housing crisis, we need to think small – and empower the planners

A small brownfield site ripe for redevelopment. Image: Matthew Carmona.

Politicians are finally waking up to the fact that London has a housing crisis. And everyone from the candidates to be London’s next mayor to the prime minister himself have talking about the urgent need to address the crisis.

One reason for the crisis is that London’s population is growing dramatically, and is on a trajectory to reach 11m in 25 years or so.  To address this growth, as well as the backlog in provision we now need to build somewhere between 49,000 and 62,000 homes a year.  Currently we are building just 23,000.

Debating the causes

Many commentators have blamed the dysfunctional housing market on poor planning decisions, or on housebuilders who are more interested in hording land and speculating on its increasing value. Others suggest that the problem stems from all the international money flooding into London’s housing market, buying up housing and leaving it empty as investments rather than homes.

The reality, however, is that we have been building too few homes for other reasons First, we no longer have a viable public led housing programme: we leave it almost entirely to the market.  Second, we over-rely on very few large housebuilders, whose primary focus as private companies is – quite rightly – on their shareholder value rather than on solving the housing crisis.

Third, we don't do enough to seek out and encourage the development of small sites across the city, relying instead on a small numbers of much larger sites.  And lastly, we have allowed our small builders (who once built vast swathes of post war suburban London) to wither in the face of the perverse lending practices of our banks who no longer wish to take the “risk” on housebuilding – this despite the huge amounts of money that those international investors seem to be making.

The potential of small sites and builders

So what is the solution? The very ordinary local mixed streets that form the prime connective tissue weaving its way across London also contains, within 500m of their frontages, 75 per cent of London’s developable brownfield land.

Although small and complex sites, they are sustainable – well-connected to public transport and well serviced by local facilities and amenities. They often need a new purpose as retail declines. And they are already part and parcel of London’s existing communities. They should be the first place we look, not the last – so why don't we look there?

Another site that could be redeveloped as housing. Image: Matthew Carmona.

Part of the problem seems to be that they are not always immediately obvious and viable development propositions. They are often hidden behind existing activities, partially used, or even fully utilised but at a very low level (for example, for single storey developments).

There is also the issue that many of the existing uses on these sites will themselves be valuable activities providing a wealth of employment and other opportunities, either temporary or long-established. Simply clearing all such backland sites for housing would clearly be hugely damaging.

So are there any other options? Today London remains surrounded by its greenbelt, which remains a popular device to constrain the city’s growth. There seems to be little political will to challenge that.

So this leaves only one viable option: the city needs to densify.

London remains a low density city by international standards (around 75 people to the hectare), and there are plenty of opportunities to densify it. We could start by bringing forward the sort of sites referred to earlier, but there and many other opportunities as well. The acres and acres of land alongside, over (and occasionally under) the city’s roads and rail infrastructure for example; the voluminous quantities of space given over solely to parking; the low grade space, within and surrounding many of our public housing estates; and all the wasted “spaces left over after planning” that are liberally dotted across the city, offering us maintenance headaches but no real amenity value to their localities. Once you start looking, the opportunities are vast.


A generational challenge

Yet densification is not an easy option. To grasp it, our public authorities will need to work much harder on planning and design strategies that engage with existing uses and communities – and that work to optimise the local opportunities whilst avoiding stripping out the sorts of marginal uses that still have tremendous value to London.

This will not be achieved by cutting back on the role of the public sector and by deregulating planning. Instead, to stand any chance of bringing forward the legions of smaller sites that we will need across the city, we will require a renewed investment in these vital functions of the state. In particular, we need to free planners up from the sorts of reactive planning that typically dominate their in-trays.

We will also need to convince communities of this strategy. They can often be highly sceptical of any mention of increasing density, associating it with the discredited high rises of the past, rather than with the sorts of terraces of townhouses and mansion blocks that characterise the highest density and highest value parts of London today.

Ultimately, I contend, we need to think small to think big. We need to unleash a new dynamic and entrepreneurial spirit in the city – among the smaller developers, but also among local communities, housing associations and the public sector, who will also all need to be part of this effort. We are facing a generational challenge, but the next generation will not thank us if we fail to deal with it.

London has always risen to such challenges in the past, and will do so now. We owe it to all our future Londoners, from wherever they hail.

Matthew Carmona is professor of planning & urban design at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL.

UCL’s Question Time on London’s Housing Crisis will be held on Wednesday 13 April at the Darwin Lecture Theatre, Gower Street.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.