In London, Like New York, They Are Building Deposit Boxes, Not Housing

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CC BY 2.0. Cheesegrater, Walkie Talkie and cranes/ Lloyd Alter

For some time I have been complaining about those who attack the "nostalgists and NIMBYs" for preventing development that according to the laws of supply and demand, would reduce the cost of housing. Writing here and in the Guardian, I have called for a Goldilocks Density:

There is no question that high urban densities are important, but the question is how high, and in what form. There is what I have called the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

Shard over London/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0Now Simon Jenkins describes in the Guardian how London’s empty towers mark a very British form of corruption. He notes that London didn't get more housing, didn't get more density, and in fact got nothing but bank deposits in the sky.

In London, as the Guardian shows, [in an earlier story about an empty building] these buildings have nothing to do with housing supply, let alone low-cost supply. Their front doors are manned not by concierges, but by security guards, like banks. They are the product of speculative flows of often “dodgy” cash, seeking an unregulated property market that asks no questions and seeks a quick profit. That is all.

He also makes the point that we have many times: that height has almost nothing to do with population density.

Nor do towers have to do with population density. The idea that modern cities must “go high” as part of the densification cause is rubbish. External landscaping and internal servicing makes them costly and inefficient. The densest parts of London are the crowded and desirable low-rise terraces of Victorian Islington, Camden and Kensington. The recently proposed Paddington Pole, the height of the Shard, had just 330 flats on 72 storeys. Adjacent, Victorian Bayswater could supply 400 on the same plot.

As noted in We Don't All Have To Live In High Rises To Get Dense Cities; We Should Just Learn From Montreal, it is not necessary to build tall to get density. In fact, our cities have been de-densifying as apartments are combined and fewer people live in them. In New York City, apartment buildings are being converted back into single family houses.

Jenkins calls it corruption:

Livingstone and Johnson promoted these towers not because they cared where ordinary Londoners would live, or because they had a coherent vision of how a historic city should look in the 21st century. They knew they were planning “dead” speculations, because plenty of people told them so. They went ahead because powerful men with money and a gift for flattery just asked. It was very British sort of corruption.

I think that is harsh, because it is happening in every successful city. Perhaps it is more a reflection of the increasing acceptance of inequality, which is why they have been called Pikettyscrapers, "inequality made solid in marble and glass."

Cities like New York and London demonstrate that height and density restrictions have very little to do with the price of housing; the developers build these towers for the rich because that's where the money is.