How many more homes could we squeeze into London’s housing estates?

South London's Central Hill Estate. Image: Charlie Clemoes.

London’s council estates are increasingly considered a valuable source of additional housing supply, primarily through densification of existing sites. The number of estate redevelopment schemes being undertaken in the capital has doubled over the past decade.

Yet despite this emphasis on estates as a source of housing supply, we know surprisingly little about the location, size, and density of the capital’s estates. Here at Centre for London, we decided to explore this further.

We undertook an analysis of large estates (those with over 200 dwellings) in four London boroughs: Barking and Dagenham, Hounslow, Lewisham, and Waltham Forest. Here’s what we found.

Large estates are generally as dense as, or denser, than their surrounding wards.

In all four boroughs, estates were generally denser than their surroundings. With the exception of those in Lewisham, large estates were roughly as dense as, or denser than the wards they are part of.

This is not to say that these estates constitute the best possible use of land – London’s housing challenge requires higher densities across the city. But it does highlight that, in three out of the four boroughs, the density of large estates is not significantly lower than that of the surrounding area as is often assumed.

So what would happen if we turned the dial up, redeveloping estates at the maximum densities specified in London Plan policy?

To generate an estimate, we tested two scenarios: one in which estates were densified to the “urban” density of 145 dwellings per hectare (dpha), and the other in which estates were densified to the “central” density of 210 dpha. Our estimates of course come with some methodological limitations, given that we mapped estates by eye, calculating density by gross rather than net area.

Densifying estates could lead to a lot of additional housing

There are modest gains to be had by densifying estates to “urban” levels - in the four sampled boroughs, densifying estates to the upper limit of the urban level could provide around 10,000 new homes.

Over twice as many homes could be achieved by building to “central” density levels. This would supply at least 50 per cent of the Greater London Authority’s 10 year new homes target in three of the four boroughs.

But introducing “central” level densities to large estates in outer London boroughs would likely involve major changes to neighbourhood characteristics, and would need to be carefully considered in both the design and community consultation.

Estate densification is a long-term game, and one that requires a serious amount of investment.

Our findings indicate that we could see an uplift of between 80,000 (“urban” level) and 160,000 (“central” level) homes in London’s large estates through densification. But these numbers come with a range of caveats.

It would take around 10 years to get all these projects started, with extensive community engagement and careful design required to ensure their success, and another 10 to complete them. In many cases, particularly in outer London, projects would also require subsidy to make them viable – a n issue we explore further in the Another Storey report.

So what did our analysis of large estates in these four boroughs show us? We learned that estates do offer some scope for densification, even though realizing the potential is a long-term process, needing significant investment. Estate densification is not the single answer to London’s huge housing supply challenge – but it should form one element, alongside densification of other land uses across the capital.

Kat Hanna is Research Manager at Centre for London and co-author of the Another Storey report. She tweets as @HannaFromHeaven.

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


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.