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Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

18 February 2013

"We need to build an even greater city"

Richard Rogers writes in the Evening Standard: "London’s resurgence over the past 30 years has been remarkable. Far from playing second fiddle as a financial centre to Frankfurt, as was once predicted, our capital is now the most vital city in the world. Only New York can compete with its vibrant mix of business, culture and life. But London faces two serious challenges: the growing gulf between rich and poor, and the persistent shortage of housing."

More than 40,000 households are homeless or in temporary accommodation, a further 220,000 live in overcrowded conditions, and population growth is expected to add a further 850,000 households by 2031. Meanwhile, the chronic housing shortage is pushing prices beyond the reach of many Londoners. The question is not whether we should build more housing, but how and where we do so.

We need to build around 33,000 new homes a year in London, but only 25,000 were completed in 2011/12. This is not enough to keep up with demand, let alone deal with the backlog, as spiralling house prices demonstrate. The solution, some argue, is radically to relax planning restrictions, and in particular to abandon the green belt that has formed a foundation of town planning for more than 60 years.

This would be an easy solution — and also a profoundly wrong one. I do not say this as a rural nimby, though I treasure England’s natural landscape, but as a defender of cities. Allowing greenfield development to run riot would wreck our cities even more surely than it would despoil the countryside.

Cities depend on a healthy mix of uses and people for their vitality. As a pre-eminent world city, London is a magnet to people from across the globe. They come to be close to work, friends and entertainment, and it is this mix of uses — of living and working, of retail and restaurants, of parks and playgrounds, of theatres and nightclubs — that brings life to London’s centres.

Letting the city sprawl would undermine this mix and intensity, reversing the rebirth of city-centre living. Losing population density and mix undermines the viability of shops, transport and other services, leading to segregation between city centres that clear out when offices close and suburbs that are lifeless all day. Suburban sprawl leads to social atomisation and fragmentation and is environmentally disastrous, as carbon-intensive car journeys displace local shops and replace public transport.

Even now we can see the erosion of civic character created by empty brownfield sites, gaps in the urban fabric that can feel threatening and lead to a diminution of public safety. Our town centres and high streets already face challenges.

As Mary Portas observed last year, many have so far simply failed to adapt to rapid changes in retail, making it all the more important that we defend and strengthen our city centres, rather than relinquishing them to dereliction.

Take Croydon as an example of what happens to city centres without mix and density. It is well served in terms of transport and has a busy office life. But it still lacks vitality, and empties out every evening, like many “hollowed out” US cities. Dense, well-connected, well-designed cities not only make good social sense; they also make good economic and environmental sense.

There may be challenges to delivering brownfield development, but a shortage of sites is not one of them. England has more than 66,000 hectares of brownfield land, more than any other industrial nation, and this increases every year. It is true that some sites are less easy to build on than the blank canvas of green fields, but architects, planners and developers need to show ingenuity in rising to this challenge rather than shrugging their shoulders. Why tolerate the huge environmental and social cost of greenfield development when clever adaptation of our urban centres can immediately link to existing infrastructure?

Making brownfield sites work does not require the abandonment of all town planning disciplines but does call for a more intelligent and design-led approach. The Government has, for example, proposed relaxing planning laws to allow developers to convert offices into housing. The proposal has some merit, but unleashing land from all planning restrictions could simply give developers a bonanza.

It is true that there is surplus office space: 18 per cent of commercial space in the London Borough of Hackney was empty before the recession hit and in the country overall there is capacity for some two million additional homes if empty commercial space was used. But simply converting offices is not sufficient. It will not create homes or communities unless intelligent urban design and planning also create the schools, shops and public transport hubs civilised life demands. And why should we rush to convert office blocks when we already have three-quarters of a million homes in England lying empty, and sites with planning permission for 400,000 more?

In addition, empty flats above shops — and the hundreds of thousands of small sites in London of less than one hectare — may not be counted in official statistics but they offer opportunities to shore up our urban centres and to provide desperately needed new housing in every neighbourhood. A more intelligent approach would be to encourage a mix of working and living in these underused properties.