To end London's housing crisis, we should be building on top of schools and libraries

Is this the solution to London's housing crisis? A library with a residential block on top. Image: WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.

How can we build more housing in crowded cities? Bill Price, the director of the construction consultancy WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, has some ideas.

In many cities, soaring house prices are a reflecting of growing demand: people increasingly want to live near city centres, for work, play, and all the other attractions they provide.

But in cities with growing populations, the shortage of housing can quickly become a crisis. One recent survey indicated that two in five Londoners would consider taking their households and talents elsewhere due to the lack of affordable housing. That figure is predicted to rise to half of all London employees if prices continue to increase.

If we have reached any consensus on the issue, it is that supply needs to be increased, dramatically and urgently: only then will house prices become affordable for the public. But beyond that, there is little agreement as to how we solve the problem.

As cities grow, the infrastructure and institutions that support residents need to keep pace as well. London’s competitiveness relies not just on affordable housing, but on good public facilities, including modern hospitals and schools. Nearly 60 per cent of Londoners who polled in a survey we conducted last year said that our public facilities need to be refurbished.

We could help solve both these problems at once – by building above existing buildings from libraries to schools to hospitals, whilst regenerating them for Londoners at the same time. The city gets the housing it desperately needs; our public buildings get much needed TLC – or in some cases, completely remade for the 21st century.

Here’s how it would work. A private developer would upgrade the local library, for example, and pay for the work by building new homes, on top which they can then sell or rent. There are a number of examples both at home and further afield – in New York for example – of this working very successfully.

According to our calculations, you could provide around 630,000 new homes across London in this way, which comfortably meets the 488,000 homes needed until 2024.

Which boroughs have the most public buildings that we could build up? Image: WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Obviously it won’t be possible or desirable to apply this to every hospital, school and fire station – but the potential is so huge that, even if only a fraction could be targeted, it would still have a major impact in helping cities maintain their social functionality. The key here is to maintain school, health, police, cultural infrastructure alongside increasing density, enabling expanding neighbourhoods and cities to prosper.

Consider Lambeth, which has the best records for public land. Our research suggests a “residential unit potential” of around 31,400 new homes if all municipal land potential could be realised with 12 additional floors; or 15,575 with six extra storeys. With a mixed height strategy (a combination of the two), there would still be twice the potential to meet the entire 2021 monitoring target and estimated capacity deficit combined (between them, they add up to 9,835 homes).

Perhaps more realistic capacities can be calculated from looking at the subcategories of central government assets, council buildings, policing, and libraries, which would be more suitable for residential buildings above them. Combined these would create 8,850 new homes with six further storeys, and 17,700 new homes with 12 further storeys. With a mixed height solution this approach could also provide the required 2021 target for Lambeth.

An artists' impresson of some flats above an (admittedly rather small) hospital. Image: WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is cultural or psychological: living above these buildings isn’t for everyone. However, when surveyed 63 per cent of Londoners said they would live above a library, and 23 per cent above a hospital or school. There’s even a market for the 8 per cent of Londoners who would live above a prison.

This idea is not a panacea – but it could form part of a wider strategy that stimulates creative ways to solve the housing crisis. There are a lot of places where we can build homes in London, without sacrificing what makes the place attractive in the first place – we just have to find them. Otherwise, the best and brightest may look elsewhere.

Bill Price is director of construction consultancy WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff. The firm’s “Housing over public assets” report can be read here.


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!

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