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.


A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.

Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.