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Richard Rogers: Converting offices will not satisfy London’s housing needs

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Richard Rogers has said new office-to-residential rules will not solve the UK’s housing problems and reiterated the importance of brownfield regeneration

Writing in the Evening Standard, the high-profile architect and former chair of the Urban Task Force called on architects, planners and developers to bring ‘ingenuity’ to challenging urban sites.

Commenting on recent planning reform, he warned that urban sprawl and unchecked greenfield development could undermine the rebirth of city-centre living in the capital. He also said letting brownfield sites remain unused eroded the civic character of our towns.

Rogers suggested conversions from offices to homes on its own would fail to solve London’s housing crisis and said a ‘more intelligent approach’ would be to encourage a mix of live and work uses in disused buildings.

Full text: Richard Rogers on the housing crisis

London’s resurgence over the past 30 years has been remarkable. Far from playing second fiddle to Frankfurt, as once predicted, the 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 should we do so.

We need to build around 33,000 new homes a year in London; 25,000 were completed in 2011/12.  This is not enough to keep up with demand, let alone to 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 the easy solution - and also the 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 green field 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 world.  They come to London in order 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 London 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 a 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 loss 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’ north American 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 brownfield 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 simply shrugging their shoulders. Why tolerate the huge environmental and social cost of green field development, when clever adaptation of our urban centres can immediately link in to an existing infrastructure?

Making brownfield sites work does not require an 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 and office space were used. But simply converting offices is not sufficient. It will not create homes or communities, unless intelligent urban design and planning also create the local schools, shops and public transport hubs, the balconies, gardens and parks that civilised human 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 under one hectare – may not be counted in official statistics, but they offer opportunity 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.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges facing our cities or to our housing crisis, but the two issues need to be considered together. From an urban design and planning point of view, the well-connected open city is a powerful paradigm and an engine for integration and inclusivity. A greater focus on design in all new homes would make the best use of land, create homes and public spaces and reinforce the structures of urban life. In 1999 I chaired the Urban Task Force: the resulting report received cross-party support. The time feels ripe for the next government-sponsored investigation into how we regenerate not just our high streets, but our cities themselves.


This article first appeared in the Evening Standard

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