Build up or build out? How to tackle urban density

The Sapphire Tower: one of a new generation of residential towers proposed for Cardiff. Image: Nicholas Socrates Associates.

These days, we almost expect that any large-scale, big impact inner-city development will be a skyscraper. But for smaller cities in the UK these proposals can still appear as fairly extreme, and their approval contentious.

Take, for example, Cardiff, where a new 42-storey, 132m high building of affordable student accommodation is due to become Wales' new tallest building. At just under half the height of London’s Shard, the new building seems paltry when compared to the world’s skyscrapers – but developments like this are still big news for smaller cities.

This contention with skyscrapers is something that has been hashed out again and again in cities all over the world. But rather than focus on how high we are building new housing developments, or where they are situated, it is time that we looked at the big picture.

Under pressure

The pressure to accommodate the housing demand in the UK is enormous. However, the opportunity is there to look more at holistic solutions that achieve balanced outcomes. Unlike London, cities such as Cardiff, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham, to name a few, are not short of space; they still have capacity to accommodate the housing needed, while promoting happiness and well-being.


Building high rise residential units should be given a great deal of thought, even in those cases when the setting can accommodate them appropriately. There is sufficient scientific evidence of the negative health and social implications of dense living. Nottingham, for example, among other cities, is currently demolishing its iconic towers the Lenton flats, to give way to more positive residential alternatives.

The issue of urban density has been the subject of debate and research for decades, if not centuries. Humans can adapt to their environments but they do so at a cost – and a number of studies have highlighted the links between density and stress as well as other physical and psychological disorders.

High-rise living can be isolating, separating residents from daily urban life and the activities that take place on the streets. Up to three or four storeys, however, one can still comfortably walk down to the street. From a window, one can connect visually and feel part of the public scene. For this reason, many built environment professionals believe four storeys is the maximum acceptable building height to achieve a decent level of connection, protect health and deliver the right level of density at the same time.

Although it may then seem better for our health, low urban density and detached housing in “out of town” locations have been branded as one of the largest causes of greenhouse gases emissions because of car use. Lower densities also make it harder to develop a neighbourhood feeling: they increase travelling distances and may be more detrimental to farming and species preservation due to their potential expansion into agricultural land.

High or low

Despite the perks and pitfalls to both inner-city and low urban density living, people’s preference tends towards the latter. A study conducted in the US found that some people prefer low density suburbs because freestanding houses in open wide areas enhance their self-esteem and sense of ownership, and are convenient for driving and parking. Large UK housing developers have also found that this “American Dream” model also appeals to customers who want “character; neighbourhoods that feel like places with their own attractive identity”.

The major concern over increasing density is the public perception that privacy would be compromised and, although this issue can be resolved with intelligent design, traditional models remain largely the norm. Some aspects of design are essential to achieving a successful density level where people still find peace, a place where they can retreat from the stress of everyday life, a distinctive character, a sense of identity and community belonging.

But which approach should we choose – building up or moving out?

There is still debate about whether humans should live in lower density settlements or if the damage caused to the environment through this approach is simply too large. Unfortunately, both ends of the spectrum – suburbia and high rise – still dominate landscapes. And while people’s preferences justify low density, the argument that higher density better delivers sustainability is often misinterpreted and misused to justify development led by land value and to secure larger economic gains.

Some recent schemes – such as Accordia in Cambridge and Trent Basin in Nottingham Waterside – demonstrate that common ground can be achieved, delivering models of medium density with compact yet green living as a compromise, to create desirable urban environments while also delivering on sustainability.

However, prototypes like these often require innovative and creative funding mechanisms to make schemes feasible; and traditional residential development models are not currently sufficient to cope with all the pressures of the market and legislative frameworks. Until the planning, regulatory and financial mechanisms take the issues of environmental and social sustainability seriously, it is unlikely we will see positive changes in the design and delivery of residential schemes.

Perhaps a bigger effort is required from the built environment industry as a whole to find positive solutions to the issue of housing in UK urban areas. Skyscrapers should be more carefully considered for cities like Cardiff, where medium density developments are still viable and could provide the best of both worlds.The Conversation

Laura Alvarez is a lecturer in architectural technology at Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.