Alain de Botton is wrong. London needs more tall buildings

From New York, to London, to Tokyo, tall buildings are a familiar part of the cityscape – though not always a popular one.

In Paris, there is vocal opposition against proposals for three new towers in the city centre – the Tour Triangle, the Tour Duo and the new Palais de Justice. Meanwhile, London appears set for a skyscraper boom, with hundreds of new towers to be built in the UK capital over the coming years.

Some people are concerned that these new developments will destroy the cities' historic skylines. In particular, Alain de Botton has warned that London could be turned into “a bad version of Dubai or Shanghai”.

But this comparison is laughable – and the fear that London is set to be overrun by empty crystalline towers is entirely misplaced.

Research tells us that London has 263 buildings of 20 storeys or more in height, either under construction or proposed to be built. To many, this is a huge and frightening number.

But let’s put this figure in context: Shanghai had 6,266 20-storey towers already built by 2014, with thousands more in the pipeline. China is without doubt the global centre of tall building construction. To accommodate an extra 350m urban dwellers by 2025, it is estimated the country will build 50,000 new skyscrapers. This is 190 times the number proposed in London, and equivalent to 10 New York Cities.

Shanghai’s vertigo-inducing skyline. Image: sama093/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

Meanwhile, Switzerland – a country known better for timber chalets than glass skyscrapers – has plans to build between 140 and 160 new towers. The country has a population similar to London’s, but much more land to build on, so you’d think there would be relatively little demand for high-rise buildings. And yet Switzerland is still proposing to build almost two-thirds as many towers as London.

When it comes to tall residential buildings, those with roughly 45 storeys or more are likely to be more than 150 metres tall. London currently has 16 towers of this height, while Dubai has 146, and Shanghai has 125.

Should all the proposed towers get built, London will see this figure rise to 47. This might sound like a boom to Londoners, but on an international scale, it is actually little more than a blip. London is not going to turn into Shanghai-on-Thames any time soon.

Getting dense

One of the main arguments for building tall is to create greater density. By stacking dwellings on top of each other, a plot of land can accommodate more people, and reduce the need to build outwards into the countryside.

Many argue that low-rise and terraced housing can achieve the same density as towers. But while this may be possible on larger sites, where the inclusion of streets and squares is viable, when it comes to developing London’s smallest brownfield sites, the only way to accommodate higher numbers of houses is to build upwards.

Paris is often cited as the prime example of a low-rise, high-density city. The city accommodates 21,500 people per km2, making it one of the densest in the Western world. And yet there has not been a single skyscraper built in central Paris since 1973, when the 59-storey Tour Montparnasse became the “most hated building in Paris”. Instead, the focus has been on buildings of six to eight storeys.

Nonetheless, the idea that Paris is a city without skyscrapers is actually a myth. It has many tall buildings, but they're clustered in a region known as La Défense, at the outskirts of the city, away from its historic centre. This has allowed Paris to develop a dense office district and compete financially with other cities, while maintaining the character of its low-rise boulevards in the centre.

These towers may be outside the political boundary of Paris proper, but they're still part of the urban landscape: they are physically and visually connected to the city via the Axe historique, which links La Défense with landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and Louvre. If we include La Défense, Paris actually has more skyscrapers than London, with 19 taller than 150 metres in height, compared to London’s 16.

La Défense towering on the horizon. Image: xeno_sapien/Flickr, CC BY.

So Londoners shouldn’t think that the skyscraper is an enemy of the historic low-rise city: far from it. We need to recognise that high-rise construction can be a key tool to preserve the historic urban realm, allowing the development demanded by economic and population growth to be diverted away from historic areas, preserving their character for residents and tourists alike.

The height of the housing crisis

It’s not just high-rise office blocks that attract opprobrium: residential towers are also accused of assaulting the eyes. Currently, London is experiencing a housing crisis: 210,000 new dwellings will be needed over the next five years to cope with population growth. But future Londoners will not be forced to live in towers.

Even if all 263 of the planned skyscrapers actually get built, they will only create 14,800 new homes, meeting just 7 per cent of the total demand for housing. The remaining 93 per cent is likely to come from low-rise buildings, which should go some way to reassuring the skyscraper sceptics.

Another criticism of London’s residential towers is that they are creating "safe-deposit boxes in the sky"; investment homes for the super-rich, which will remain empty until they can be sold on for a tidy profit. While it is true there is a shameful lack of affordable housing in modern high-rise apartment blocks in London, there is little evidence that new units are going to remain unoccupied.

Houses, or homes? Image: aesum/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND.

This is not to say that empty houses are not a challenge in London: in 2014 alone, more than 20,000 dwellings were vacant for longer than six months. The borough of Lambeth – home to several tall residential towers – had the highest number of empty houses, with 1,354. But the borough of Kensington & Chelsea, characterised by low-rise, high-density architecture, was placed second, with 1,250 vacant dwellings.

Empty millionaire pads aren’t only found on top of towers, but across all luxury developments, including low-rise housing. The issue of empty houses won’t be addressed by stopping the spread of skyscrapers.

Detractors of the high-rise will also tell you that tall buildings are expensive to build and maintain, and unsustainable due to high energy needs. This, they say, makes the tall building unsuitable for affordable housing. Again though, this doesn’t tell the full story: while building vertically is often more expensive up front, there can be notable energy and cost savings over the longer term.

Stacking up housing allows residents to live closer to the centre of a city, giving them better access to public transportation and cultural facilities, and reducing the energy needed for transit. Heating is the largest consumer of energy in our dwellings, and here tall buildings offer benefits, too. Due to their compact form, high-rise towers lose very little heat through their walls, and have been found to have the lowest heating needs of all building types. This means a reduced carbon footprint, and lower bills for residents as energy prices continue to rise.

It would be foolish for anyone to suggest London should follow the path of Dubai, Hong Kong and Shanghai and attempt to house its population entirely in tall buildings. But surely it’s just as foolish to limit all London’s future housing to terraces, or six to eight storey buildings, as those like de Botton are suggesting.

London doesn’t need just one or two building types – it needs a wide mix of housing. These should probably be mostly low or medium-rise buildings, as is the case today. But they should also include strategically-placed skyscrapers, to increase population density and help London meet its desperate housing needs. The Conversation

Philip Oldfield is Assistant Professor and Course Director, Masters in Sustainanble Tall Buildings at University of Nottingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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

City Monitor is now live in beta at

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 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.