Protecting the view: how St Paul's Cathedral has been shaping the rest of London for centuries

Because the world will end if you can't see it from Richmond. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mark Fosh

As well as all your standard planning rules – not accidentally constructing a huge mirror that sets fire to cars if there’s the wrong sort of sun, etc. – London has another unusual consideration for would-be skyscraper builders: you have to ensure you don’t ruin the view of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Some of this concerns the area immediately surrounding it in the City of London, referred to as “St Paul’s Heights”, established in 1937. Within this area, the City’s planning department aims to preserve the existing views of St Paul’s, although there are quite a few buildings that already infringe it – either because they predate the current iteration of planning policy or because, like the new Blackfriars station, they’re not in the City so it couldn’t do anything about it.

No tall things please, we're British. Image: City of London.

But the effect of the cathedral on planning spreads way past the borders of the City: several viewing corridors exist to keep St Paul’s visible from other parts of London. The longest, and oldest, runs all the way to King Henry VIII’s Mount in Richmond – far enough way they’ve had to set up a telescope to enable you to see it as much more than a tiny dome-shaped blur. The view of the cathedral is also protected from Parliament and Primrose Hills, although the growth of the skyline around in over the last century means it barely stands out anyway.

The view from Primrose Hill. Find St Paul’s, win a pound. (N.B. You will not win a pound.) Image: Wikimedia Commons/Diliff.

In recent years, there’s been huge pressure to relax some of these rules given the increasing demand for ludicrously shaped tall buildings in London –  when Ken Livingstone was mayor, he decreased the size of the viewing cones from 440m to 210m – and the sky has, as yet, failed to fall in. Even if you do care about views, the argument could be made that a skyscraper can be as interesting to look at as a cathedral.

The various protected views of London. Image: OpenStreetMap.

While London is notable for having so much planning policy dictated by a single building (although views of parliament and the Tower of London are also protected), it’s certainly not the only city to operate this kind of policy. Quite a few places in the UK have laws that restrict building heights or otherwise protect views around their cathedrals – simply because, like St Paul's, they had been the tallest building in the area for centuries.

In the US, Portland, Oregon has a Scenic Resources Protection Plan to manage development, partly inspired by a popular view of the local mountain being ballsed up by the pointy KOIN Center building.

A spectacularly sarcastic section of a planning report. Image: portlandoregon.gov.uk.

While this sort of thing might carry a general sense of worthiness, it is not necessarily without cost. San Francisco’s extremely restrictive planning laws are in part about preserving key views in the city – but they also mean hardly anyone can afford to live there, as demand has massively outstripped the ability to build enough new homes, high density housing being difficult because of the height restrictions.

If nothing else, perhaps there should be an exemption on constructing tall stuff in these areas if there’s a hilariously spiteful reason to do so. The impressive Art Deco Kavanagh building in Buenos Aires was commissioned in 1934 by Corina Kavanagh, an Irish millionaire. According to local legend she’d tried to marry into a local aristocratic family, but the match was rejected because she wasn’t from noble enough stock. In revenge, she bought the land between the family’s mansion, and the fancy local church that they’d paid for, and blocked their favourite view with her new skyscraper.

If there is a lesson here, it’s that if you really want to protect the view of St Paul’s Cathedral, you should have to marry it.

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Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.