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.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.