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.

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


 

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now 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 from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about 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 now 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 is 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 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, 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.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free 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 new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. 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!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

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