Should the next mayor rethink London's attitude to tall buildings?

Vertigo: inside London's skyscraper district. Image: Oli Scarff/Getty.

Up or Out? How is London going to grow? Many planned new towers have prompted a backlash from some wishing to preserve London’s skyline.

But is London’s self-image as a low-rise city really justified? Quod’s report with homelessness Charity Shelter uses new analysis to look at how tall London really is.

London is not the low-rise suburban city of our imagination. Even beyond the existing and emerging clusters of towers, a view across London is almost always peppered with taller buildings of different kinds – from council-built social housing, to suburban office blocks. Nearly half of all England’s high-rise apartments are in London. That’s 28,000 London homes on the 10th floor or higher, of which 43 per cent are in outer London.

For most parts of the city, the era when the tallest building was the local church passed generations ago. Around two thirds of Londoners already have at least one tall building in their own neighbourhood (that is, live within 800m of a building over 30m high).

You can explore the data behind this analysis in the map below. Scroll and zoom around the map here to see buildings over 30m high (the London plan definition of tall buildings) in yellow, and those taller than St Pauls in red.

You can explore the London height map full page here.

This is Environment Agency LIDAR data – heights measured by laser from a plane! – so it records any structure, including incinerator chimneys, the odd electricity pylon and even a mighty Redwood tree in Kew Gardens.

But on the whole, they’re quite ordinary buildings. There are the clusters of very tall buildings in central London, but even more numerous are the tall offices and residential towers scattered across the capital.

Mid-rise and taller buildings are not new, even in outer London, and accepting more high-quality taller buildings is one way that more homes could be built. The visibility of new towers like the Shard belies the difficulties in building upwards in London. Planning policy protects a range of strategic views, particularly of St Paul’s and Parliament, and these corridors crisscross much of central London.

Planning designations that can constrain tall buildings. Click to expand.

Even outside these corridors, proposals for taller buildings may be blocked for their effect on the character and setting of listed buildings, world heritage sites, and conservation areas: these between them cover a fifth of Greater London, including a majority of Inner London. And of course London’s five airports and aerodromes have essential height restrictions that extend many miles around. Even where building height is not directly constrained by policy, rules on density could effectively limit heights.

Some of these constraints on height must remain, but there are policy choices to be made about where and how they are applied that could have a big overall effect on how much housing can be built.

Good design is essential to make density work well, and tall buildings do not automatically equate to high density – 1960s-style towers surrounded by grass were sometimes a less efficient use of land than more traditional terraced streets. However there are limits to how much housing can be delivered with low-rise streets. Without towers, Opportunity Areas like Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea would contribute far fewer new homes.

The question for the new mayor will be how many other areas could support taller buildings, and where to strike the balance between protecting the current skyline and allowing a change in heights.

Barney Stringer is a director at regeneration consultancy Quod. This article was originally posted on his blog.

The firm’s report, “Brownfield is Not Enough”, published with housing charity Shelter, is available here.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become 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 coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from 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 going to be 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 will be 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’ll 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 this fall, 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.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming 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 forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. 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!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

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