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Skylines around the world

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Can London strengthen its own policies by learning lessons from how other cities approach skyscraper development? Philip Oldfield finds out

The AJ/Observer Skyline campaign is calling for a more robust tall building policy for London. Existing planning policy, consisting of the London


View Management Framework, vague guidance in the London Plan and local planning documents, is not deliveringa coherent townscape. Yet New York’s more prescriptive zoning model has resulted in similar challenges to those facing London - a critical lack of affordable housing alongside ghost-homes for the rich.

On the other hand, Singapore’s ‘gardens in the sky’ show us that governance can have a positive impact on lifestyle; while Rotterdam and Vancouver’s enhanced planning procedures show how design quality is enhanced through peer review. Can London strengthen its own policies by learning lessons from how othese cities approach skyscraper development?

New York


Prescriptive Zoning

More than any other city, the architecture of New York has been shaped by tall-building zoning regulations. Just under a century ago, the rise of the 40-storey Equitable Building cast a seven-acre shadow across the city and ushered in the 1916 zoning law, restricting the bulk of tall buildings through the requirement of set-backs to preserve light and air on the streets below, thus creating the famous ‘wedding cake’ skyscraper style that dominated early 20th-century America.

This policy was revised in 1961 with Floor Area Ratios (FAR) replacing set-backs, with bonuses for plazas, typified by Mies’ Seagram Building. So, for example, on a 1,000m² site with a permitted FAR of 10.0 (allowed in the highest density residential districts) the maximum building size would be 10,000m², though this could be increased to a FAR of 12.0 if a plaza or affordable housing were included. But ‘unused’ development potential above a low-rise could be ‘transferred’ (ie sold) to an adjacent plot, meaning towers could rise far above the surrounding skyline with little public consultation. So, despite New York having a much more prescriptive approach to high-rise planning than London, many of the same problems remain. Affordable housing crisis - check. Supertall apartments for the ultra-wealthy, many of them empty - check. Debate about tall buildings and the need for public input - check. All seem eerily familiar.

Learning point

The current challenges of New York show us the prescriptive zoning model of North America is certainly not the solution for London. What makes London unique is its architectural diversity and organic character; over-restrictive zoning would result in a banality at odds with the city’s idiosyncrasies.



Beyond the Protected View

Vancouver, and the now much-heralded verb Vancouverism, has become synonymous with good urban design. Famed for a lack of highways punching through its central core (a major gripe in neighbouring Seattle), the city is characterised by mid- and high-rise residential towers atop commercial podiums with pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. Like London, Vancouver’s tall-building development is governed by the protection of strategic views, though while London safeguards historic buildings, Vancouver’s strategy is the preservation of spectacular views of the adjacent mountains and harbour.

However, the city’s tall-building policy goes far beyond this. Vancouver’s 1997 Skyline Study defined specific zoning for tall buildings, including the shape of the skyline, how building heights should step down towards the harbour, and even identifying specific streets and sites for the city’s future tallest towers. Of interest - in relation to Peter Murray’s proposal for a London ‘skyline commission’ (AJ 04.04.14) - is the enhanced planning review for all towers over 170m, which includes an additional two international and two local tall-building experts. High-rise luminaries including Ken Yeang and Adrian Smith (architect of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa) reviewed the 201m Shangri-La Hotel, the tallest building in the city, advising not only on its height, but on its skin and relationship to the streetscape. This enhanced planning review includes the requirement of dedicated public engagement, with the specialist panel members engaging in discourse on the architectural qualities of the proposal.

A possible downside of these measures, which the Urban Land Institute notes results in the city having ‘arguably the most heavily regulated development space in North America’, is the suggestion that high costs of development could be driving up apartment prices. But there is little denying the high quality of urban realm created, and tall buildings are still being built, with only three of the tallest 10 in the city completed before 2000.

Learning point

Vancouver’s enhanced planning review procedures - dedicated high-rise committees who comment and advise not only on the skyline, but also on architectural quality.



Hybrid Planning

If New York’s exacting and prescriptive approach to tall-building planning is the polar opposite of London’s strategic policies, Rotterdam sits somewhere in the middle, combining broad zoning with advisory guidance.

Rotterdam’s Hoogbouwbeleid or High Building Policy contains tall-building development (over 70m) within three clusters in the central business district stretching from Rotterdam Centraal to Parkstad - a strip around 3km in length, crossing the river Maas. Three levels of zoning are specified: areas with no height limit, areas for tall buildings 70-150m in height, and transitional areas, although precise sites for the tallest towers are not specified.

A series of more qualitative requirements sits beside these, such as the need for good connections with public transport, impact on the market, public space, accessibility, parking and more. An advisory committee provides guidance to the local government on these qualitative ambitions. Furthermore, a dedicated High-Rise Advisory Committee was established in 2001 to assess tall-building projects against these criteria, and also to guide architects and developers through the design process, although this strategy was abandoned in a cost-cutting exercise a few years later.

Learning point

Rotterdam balances careful consideration of high-rise location with strategic guidance and input on quality.



Gardens in the Sky

Building development in Singapore is governed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which has sole control over land-use planning and conservation. High-rise development is controlled by the 2008 URA Master Plan, which specifies dedicated plot ratios and building heights for every site across the city-state.

This top-down stewardship perhaps leaves us with little to learn relevant to London. However, lessons can certainly be gleaned from Singapore’s progressive regulations in terms of tall-building identity and social sustainability - unsurprising given that 86 per cent of the population live in high-rise social housing. As we debate how high-rise living could become better suited to families in the UK, Singapore has developed the Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises (LUSH) policies. These state that social and communal green spaces at height are exempt from gross floor-area calculations, and thus not taxed. In addition, developers who include skygardens in their design may build additional height beyond that specified in the master plan, thus creating a strong incentive for the inclusion of social or communal spaces at height.

The result is some of the most radical high-rise residential architecture anywhere in the world, with developments like the Pinnacle@Duxton containing an outdoor gym for the elderly, children’s play area, mini parks, seating areas and an 800-metre running track linking together seven towers at the 26th floor.

Learning point

Singapore’s LUSH policies show us that governance doesn’t just have to focus on location and skyline, but can also positively impact on lifestyle, and how we use and interact with tall buildings.

Philip Oldfield is course director for the Sustainable Tall Buildings masters course at the University of Nottingham

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