London faces skyscraper pressure unless planning laws change

Scarcity of land in London could result in the capital becoming a city of residential skyscrapers unless existing planning laws are altered, according to LSE urban economist Gabriel Ahlfeldt.

Dr Ahlfeldt, an Associate Professor of Urban Economics and Land Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says as long as outward growth is prevented by policies such as the ‘green belt’, the city will need to grow vertically as the population increases.

He said:

“A significant proportion of land in London is within dedicated conservation areas so much of the architectural heritage will be preserved, but outside these areas there are increasing pressures to build denser and taller buildings, which will inevitably alter London’s skyline.”

Dr Ahlfeldt has made the remarks in the wake of a newly published paper he has co-authored, analysing 150 years of construction of tall buildings in Chicago, a city which has parallels to London.

“We found three elements which are all powerful forces leading developers to construct taller buildings: the price of land, nice views and a competition element among developers vying for the ‘tallest’ prize.

“In Chicago, there is evidence of overbuilding beyond a economically justifiable height. Architects, developers and planners seem intent on winning the prize for the highest build. This prize often comes in the form of a scenic view, which is particularly relevant in the residential market.”

The same pattern is evident in London, he adds.

Dr Ahlfeldt says the 309 metre-high Shard, at first glance, is an ‘obvious candidate’ for an ‘overbuild’.

“Built on the south side of the Thames – not a traditional location for skyscrapers – it vastly exceeds any other structure in proximity as if it was built to pre-empt rivals building a taller structure.”

Similar examples include the 43-story Strata SE1 at Southwark and the planned 68-storey South Quay Plaza residential development, he adds.

“It is important to note, however, that planners in London have much stronger controls over height than their peers in Chicago.”

London is among the most expensive cities in the world in terms of land and real estate prices, surpassed only by Monaco and Hong Kong, both of which have grown vertically due to geographical restrictions which prevent horizontal growth.

Dr Ahlfeldt’s research findings suggest that London will in future see a combination of relatively strong concentrations of tall commercial buildings in clusters such as the City and Canary Wharf, and solitary residential towers scattered all over the cityscape.

“It is time to think about whether this is the desired outcome from a planning perspective. We either need to allow for vertical growth or horizontal growth, otherwise London will become even more unaffordable than it already is.”