Memorandum by The Civic Trust (TAB 11)
What qualifies as a "tall building"?
Is it a relative or absolute term? A six-storey building looks
tall in a street of two storey terraces and a ten-storey building
built next to Canary Wharf looks small. The following statement
is about buildings over 50 metres high. Some of the principles
may be relevant to smaller buildings, depending upon their location.
Economic good times generate tall buildings.
This is a national phenomenon, although most are in London. Their
merits and problems are being debated fiercely amid belated efforts
to devise policies to deal with them. Planning policies, informed
by the views of local people, are needed quickly and should cover
an entire city.
Large companies often prefer to locate their
corporate headquarters in tall buildings to convey prestige and
to accommodate all their operations within one building. Cities
that seek to attract investment from such companies need to be
able to provide appropriate sites after careful research and agreement
by the planning authority, not decided under pressure from the
developer and his agents.
Decisions taken now will affect our cities for
decades. Random pepperpotting of tall office and residential buildings
across London and other cities in the 60s and 70s wrought severe
damage. The difficulty of demolishing tall buildings on tight
sites that have come to the end of their useful life should also
be considered. In the light of this experience, a sceptical approach
and rigorous analysis are needed.
Good decisions cannot be made without comprehensive
information. Each application must be accompanied by illustrations
from multiple viewpoints and an urban design assessment. These
should provide a very clear picture of the visual impact of the
building and its relationship to pedestrian routes, transport
infrastructure and neighbouring buildings.
The prestige of tall buildings
Municipal authorities and developers often argue
that tall buildings confer prestige and ensure economic competitiveness.
This may be true for New York and Chicago, pioneers of this form
of building and famous for it. London cannot and should not try
to emulate them. Tourists bring in huge amounts of money; they
visit London to admire its Georgian squares and grand Victorian
institutions, not its skyscrapers. Attempting to mimic Hong Kong
would erode the unique qualities or our cities and could even
damage them economically.
Large footprint office buildings as an alternative
to high rise
Office space is required to accommodate business
but it need not be created in tall buildings. Increasing density
does not necessarily entail an increase in height. Building shorter,
larger footprint buildings, which can be more easily adapted for
changing IT requirements, can help meet demand. Shopping arcades
cutting through the heart of large footprint buildings can provide
new pedestrian routes, attract more business and allow multiple
uses on the site.
Respecting architectural context
The location of new tall buildings is crucial.
A tall building should not be a fetish object judged in isolation
from its surroundings. If it would violate an area with a distinct
historic or architectural character then it should not be built,
however fine the building.
Views of certain landmarks also need protection.
For example, in London there is a need to protect the prominence
of St. Paul's and the Houses of Parliament as London's defining
buildings, and as symbols of church and state power.
Tall buildings can enhance skylines, particularly
if their tops are designed with flairperhaps thrillingly
slender or strikingly patterned. They mark the centre of a city
and provide a point of orientation that is visible from far away.
Topography and microclimates
The appropriateness of a location is affected
by topography. Microclimatic conditions such as wind tunnel effects
and overshadowing require careful consideration. For example,
the undulating landscape of central Birmingham affects the impact
of a building, a factor acknowledged by Birmingham City Council's
A tall building may contain thousands of people.
It must therefore be well served by public transport. Transport
interchanges are thus ideal locations for intensive development.
If the system lacks the capacity to cope with the new passengers,
the enhanced land value created by the grant of planning permission
can be used to pay for an improved service through section 106
agreements. If sufficient capacity cannot be created then the
location is unsuitable.
If this windfall value is not required to pay
for improvements to public transport, it should fund a variety
of things, such as training schemes for local people who could
secure construction jobs on the project or high quality landscaping.
Mixing uses and lively ground floors
Tall buildings should have active, publicly
accessible ground floor uses to enliven the street frontage. Shops
are ideal. In addition to ground floor retail, a tall building
can also contain homes and offices, with a caf
or restaurant at the top providing a public
vantage point. The space beneath tall builds can be used for parking,
trains and facilities for residents.
Planners and politicians should demand that
proposals for tall buildings:
are sympathetic to the character
of the area on which it will have an impact and will contribute
to the street scene rather than dominate and overwhelm;
are part of an existing cluster of
tall buildings or, exceptionally, part of a planned new cluster;
have tops and bases that are strikingly
would not spoil the views to, and
from, important landmarks and open spaces;
will not create adverse microclimatic
problems, nor dense shade in nearby areas;
are well served by public transport;
will have invested in community assets
a substantial part of any increase in land value created by the
incorporate a vertical mixture of
are energy efficient, preferably
If these exacting criteria are strictly followed
a few very fine buildings should result, which may in the future
be regarded as a built heritage deserving conservation.
Local government should quickly establish policy
frameworks, based on the criteria offered in this statement, which
will determine where different types of tall buildings can be
Private sector developers and their advisors
should devise proposals for tall buildings that fulfil these criteria
or choose another building type.
Civic societies should keep an open mind towards
proposals for tall buildings, urge their local authority to devise
appropriate criteria and lobby developers to adhere to them.