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.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.