In defence of... suburban skyscrapers

An artist’s impression of Hale Works. Image: Anthology.

The London Borough of Haringey is hardly famous for skyscrapers. Its tallest structure is Alexandra Palace, not just because it’s sat on a big hill, but owing to its vast radio mast, installed when the BBC used the Palace for early television recording in the 1930s.

Since then, most developments in Haringey have been smaller-scale; quasi-modern housing estates and balcony-laden mid-rise flats. Barring Stratford, the same is true of most of outer London. Given that Haringey is loaded with conservation areas from Highgate to Crouch End, perhaps it’s better they’ve kept things squat.

But on the opposite side of the borough, it’s a different story. In Tottenham’s Hale Village, developers Anthology are creating a vast tower, part of a new residential development centred around Tottenham Hale station. Originally planned to be 18 stories high, the tower, christened Hale Works, is now expected to be 30.

A nondescript block of glass and concrete, it’s easy to see why such a “suburban skyscraper” would draw attacks from the surrounding community. We’ve grown used to criticising tall towers ever since we tired of the Gherkin’s playful dissonance. Developments like the Walkie Talkie and the Cheese Grater have only, well, grated. Tall buildings are expected to be incongruent and unpleasant, and Hale Village doesn’t look like an exception.

So how could anyone possibly defend suburban skyscrapers? Firstly, the distant view of tall buildings contributes to a sense of "placemaking". Despite sounding pseudo-intellectual, it’s a valuable concept: one that causes us to associate the Elizabeth Tower with Westminster or The BT Tower with Holborn. Being able to see a structure from a distance helps us understand where we are in relation to it, and when we reach it, we identify with it. And so, a neighbourhood can expect greater sense of identity if they unite around a monument.

This tends to be especially true of monuments like Big Ben that pay architectural homage to a certain time or style. But modern buildings aren’t excluded from this trend: the terracotta pots of the new White Hart Lane station help recognise the area’s industrial heritage.

Tall buildings are also a great focal point for community services, such as libraries, community centres, leisure centres, and, of course, viewing platforms. Developers are actually obliged to provide for more of these services in tall developments because they accrue a higher number of dwellings per acre, especially in the suburbs, where these towers are almost totally residential. Studies like Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People emphasise just how important pieces of “social infrastructure” are in building more cohesive communities. If a taller development can promise more of these services in areas with poorer provision, that’s no bad thing.


Of course, there’s always the question of slippery slopes in planning: approve one tall building, and developers will think they can get away with more. But compared to a dense city like Hong Kong or Shanghai, the UK has sufficiently archaic planning legislation to prevent the mass proliferation of tall buildings, at least in areas where they're less appropriate.

Location surveys like this, working in tandem with the principles set out in the London Plan, help focus in tall developments to where they make the most sense. There’s a cluster of tall buildings in the eastern corner of the City because that’s where the fewest conservation areas are. And all this is without even considering “protected views”, like those of London’s greatest placemaking monument, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Each borough also has lots of “strategic views” that work in a similar way; for example, it’s unlikely Haringey will approve planning permission for a building that blocks the view to Ally Pally.

Given all this, you might be asking which tall buildings fulfil these lofty conditions of placemaking and positioning. In fact, there’s one just down the road from Hale Village.

Lock 47 is built to look like a docker’s warehouse with the spec of a residential tower, located along a branch of the Lea and ripe for riverside activity. It’s inspiring in a way that the Hale Works isn’t, and yet it was almost dismissed for being too tall.

But tallness doesn’t always imply ugliness, as proven by Haringey’s current tallest building. Alexandra Palace is tall and tactful without being an eyesore, precisely because it respects – and even enhances – its surrounding neighbourhood. If developers and planners alike learn to respect the relationships between palaces and the people, we can make tall buildings more popular in the suburbs – not just for those that live inside them, but for those that live around them as well.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.