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Let's Build!
Why we need five million
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James Heartfield

With a foreword by Robert Bruegmann

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The Future of London

James Heartfield argued for living space in The London Programme of 3 October 2003. Presented by Phil Gayle for London Weekend Television, the programme discusses the current Visions for the future of London. The programme provides an excellent summary of the polarities and tensions of present day development thinking. Featuring contributions from architect Lord Richard Rogers, the Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, Piers Gough, Rowan Moore, Bill Dunster, Eric Reynolds, and Kevin Fitzgerald of the Campaign to Protect Rural England - among many others - the programme serves as an excellent educational introduction to the planning issues facing London and the wider South East.

We are grateful to Granada for their kind permission to post the entire programme at low resolution on this website for educational purposes, provided free of charge. View Visions by clicking on the red button:

clickVisions in .wmv format for Windows Media Player (23.6 Mb)

Click here for a leaflet about the Visions programme produced by LWT.

Summary...

London’s population is set to rise, and according to the London Mayor’s Office, it will grow by 700,000 over the next 15 years. To house this growth, London will have to find new and radical solutions for a problem that has dogged the city for years.

The problem of an overcrowded London is not a new one, and nor is the concept of high rise living. The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is keen to see a new breed of tower blocks to help with the housing crisis. However he is quick to point out he is not trying to replicate New York's Manhattan in London. However, as the Architecture Foundation's Rowan Moore points out, to have any real impact on the housing situation London would need hundreds of buildings - like the tower proposed for Vauxhall Cross - changing the whole landscape of the city.

Some architects like Lord Richard Rogers, himself an advisor on architecture to Livingstone, believe it’s possible to have high density living without high rise buildings. He insists that "cramming", as he accurately calls it, '... is to do with how much public space you've got... not specifically to do with density'. He advocates 6 or 7 storey blocks of prefabricated flats, such as those being built by the Peabody Housing Trust at Raines Dairy, Stoke Newington.

Architect Piers Gough notes that London has developed this way in the past, and that high density - whether high or medium rise - is not new. He points to Georgian and Victorian London. Yet he also appreciates why people have since sought living space in suburbia. He questions whether the suburbs should be "crammed" to increase their density.

As a model for densified suburbia, Bill Dunster proposes BedZed in South London, again by the Peabody Housing Trust, as a 4 storey "live-work" development designed to make zero contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This approach is widely promoted by policy researchers and social strategists like Ian Christie of the Local Futures Group. Rogers also approves of the attempt to design out commuting, and notes that people want gardens. Not everyone gets a garden at BedZed, but then neither do they in the horrible looking flats next door.

Other ingenious solutions come from design teams like Softroom, who have converted obsolete office space into spacious housing. Oliver Salway explains how the Maison Canif has a core at the centre of the living space that houses everything the homeowner needs, neatly folded away, like a Swiss army knife. This obviously requires a large open living space to situate the core at the centre. Yet why have something obstructing the centre of the space, when the same equipment and functionality could be built along the walls?

Finding space expensive, Stuart Piercy of Piercy Conner architects have in contrast designed the microflat, which Selfridges displayed in their shop window. These aim to use small spaces efficiently, and are intended for a wide cross-section of the population who can’t get a foothold on the property ladder. But as Piercy recognises himself, microflats have not taken off because it is more the price of land, rather than the cost of construction, that proves decisive in making housing affordable. Despite the promotion, and the scope for what Moore describes as a "mixed economy of housing", microflats are neither affordable nor widely available.

Urban Space Management have an even more radical design that recycles shipping containers. Eric Reynolds enthuses about how they build up quickly and quietly, as well as providing well-insulated homes in small pockets of London’s unused land. His difficulty is not so much in identifying the sites, but in getting planning approval for container housing. The possibility that planners might have an aesthetic point in resisting the proliferation of container stockpiles does not seem to occur to Reynolds. The architectural result might be fashionably "post-industrial" for a younger market, but it is far from being a generalisable housing solution, even given enough land.

Tim Pyne has developed the attractive M-House as a prefabricated architectural product, but still finds resistance from the planning system, which he tries to get round by classifying them as caravans. They have a vestigial wheel. Rogers may argue for building more cheaply through prefabrication, but at what price to the householder? The M-House neither sacrifices living space nor architectural quality, and works as a low density "stand alone" housing solution. But it is not a stackable urban system, which is what policymakers want for London.

More conventionally, and for themselves rather than as a housebuilder, architects Howard Carter and Sarah Cheeseman obtained planning permission to have their own town house built. Ann Doherty at the Environment Department of Camden Borough Council is frustrated that planning does not seem to fully utilise smaller urban sites, either for one off homes or prefabricated housing systems.

Perhaps due to all their various shortcomings, these innovative ideas have yet to take a hold on the imagination of Londoners. According to pollsters MORI, the two most desirable housing types remain bungalows and village houses, with only 2% choosing urban loft style apartments. However this low density type of living calls for land, not for leftover urban sites. For London that means moving out into green belt areas, which at present is generally not considered an acceptable option. As Rogers begins the programme by insisting:

'What we need is policies to build up our cities, not policies to escape out into the countryside'.

Like Rogers, the Campaign to Protect Rural England is fervently against "sprawl", and has been since the 1930s. Yet effectively banning rural development has not saved the countryside. Today, CPRE members like Kevin Fitzgerald are often seeing commercially redundant farmland in London's Green Belt and surrounding countryside sold to land speculators. People are buying up plots in fallow fields without any immediate prospect of obtaining planning approval, on the insight that sooner or later, London has to expand into greenfields and across their plotland. It is not the volume housebuilders who are buying up farms, but would-be households.

James Heartfield, director of audacity.org, argues that finding land in the green belt, and in Britain's redundant farmland more generally, is a positive way forward in the twenty-first century. He goes further to suggest that London as a compact city, conceived in eighteenth, nineteenth and even twentieth century terms, has ceased to exist. We are dispersing to find living space, he says, and that dispersal is made ever more possible by transportation and telecommunications.

clickIt's time to face down the environment lobby and build many more houses 01.04.2003

clickNowhere near enough new homes 16.09.2002

clickBuild more on greenfield sites and the Green Belt 29.07.2002

'We're going to have to share the countryside', says Heartfield.

'Completely unacceptable!' says Livingstone. The Mayor of London prefers to put the maximum development possible on previously developed or brownfield sites. Heartfield is more concerned about the consequences of politicians like Livingstone, or their architects, failing to develop London fast enough and well enough.

Gough recognises that the way suburbia develops in future will determine whatever we will probably continue to call London. For Rogers suburbia must be infilled at higher densities, or redeveloped like BedZed, but Gough is less convinced that the majority will simply stop aspiring to semi-detatched or detatched housing with garden space.

However planning policy is with the "crammers" and against "sprawl". Housing is being directed to brownfield sites, and at higher densities than suburbia. Areas like the Thames Gateway have been earmarked for London's growth into the deindustrialised Thames Estuary. Opinions vary between developers like Tim Seddon of Land Securities, with their plans for compact commuter housing developments in an old quarry at Dartford, and established interests in the area. Leader of Dartford Borough Council Kenneth Leadbetter wants to provide housing for people employed in the local economy rather than to '... help solve London's housing problems'. Both Seddon and Leadbetter agree on the need for investment in the infrastructure that the Thames Gateway depends on.

In any event, the government is not talking about all of London's expected household growth being accommodated in the Thames Gateway. Far from it. At most the area is presently planned for 120,000 households up to 2016, and much of the Gateway Green Belt and countryside is to be retained undeveloped. Some of it is worth saving, but the area could take much more development at the widest range of densities and heights. Regrettably Livingstone will have his way. There will be no equivalent to Manhattan rising to the East of present day London to dwarf Canary Wharf. Nor will the Thames wetlands be made available for the M-houseboats that Pyne takes as a viable housing lesson from Holland. So where will there be growth for London?

Phil Gayle is left with his initial question - How will London grow?

On top of itself say most policymakers. Outwards says Heartfield. 'It could go either way', says Moore. And it could go either way, assuming growth happens. The real danger is in failing to grow, and at the moment, despite all the visions, sustaining a cycle of dilapidation and refurbishment seems the likely future for London.

That may pass for "urban regeneration", but it is not growth - either upwards or outwards.

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