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Environment / Climate change

In defence of… suburban skyscrapers

The London Borough of Haringey is hardly famous for skyscrapers. Its tallest structure is Alexandra Palace, not just because it’s sat on a big hill, but owing to its vast radio mast, installed when the BBC used the Palace for early television recording in the 1930s.

Since then, most developments in Haringey have been smaller-scale; quasi-modern housing estates and balcony-laden mid-rise flats. Barring Stratford, the same is true of most of outer London. Given that Haringey is loaded with conservation areas from Highgate to Crouch End, perhaps it’s better they’ve kept things squat.

But on the opposite side of the borough, it’s a different story. In Tottenham’s Hale Village, developers Anthology are creating a vast tower, part of a new residential development centred around Tottenham Hale station. Originally planned to be 18 stories high, the tower, christened Hale Works, is now expected to be 30.

A nondescript block of glass and concrete, it’s easy to see why such a “suburban skyscraper” would draw attacks from the surrounding community. We’ve grown used to criticising tall towers ever since we tired of the Gherkin’s playful dissonance. Developments like the Walkie Talkie and the Cheese Grater have only, well, grated. Tall buildings are expected to be incongruent and unpleasant, and Hale Village doesn’t look like an exception.

So how could anyone possibly defend suburban skyscrapers? Firstly, the distant view of tall buildings contributes to a sense of “placemaking”. Despite sounding pseudo-intellectual, it’s a valuable concept: one that causes us to associate the Elizabeth Tower with Westminster or The BT Tower with Holborn. Being able to see a structure from a distance helps us understand where we are in relation to it, and when we reach it, we identify with it. And so, a neighbourhood can expect greater sense of identity if they unite around a monument.

This tends to be especially true of monuments like Big Ben that pay architectural homage to a certain time or style. But modern buildings aren’t excluded from this trend: the terracotta pots of the new White Hart Lane station help recognise the area’s industrial heritage.

Tall buildings are also a great focal point for community services, such as libraries, community centres, leisure centres, and, of course, viewing platforms. Developers are actually obliged to provide for more of these services in tall developments because they accrue a higher number of dwellings per acre, especially in the suburbs, where these towers are almost totally residential. Studies like Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People emphasise just how important pieces of “social infrastructure” are in building more cohesive communities. If a taller development can promise more of these services in areas with poorer provision, that’s no bad thing.


Of course, there’s always the question of slippery slopes in planning: approve one tall building, and developers will think they can get away with more. But compared to a dense city like Hong Kong or Shanghai, the UK has sufficiently archaic planning legislation to prevent the mass proliferation of tall buildings, at least in areas where they’re less appropriate.

Location surveys like this, working in tandem with the principles set out in the London Plan, help focus in tall developments to where they make the most sense. There’s a cluster of tall buildings in the eastern corner of the City because that’s where the fewest conservation areas are. And all this is without even considering “protected views”, like those of London’s greatest placemaking monument, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Each borough also has lots of “strategic views” that work in a similar way; for example, it’s unlikely Haringey will approve planning permission for a building that blocks the view to Ally Pally.

Given all this, you might be asking which tall buildings fulfil these lofty conditions of placemaking and positioning. In fact, there’s one just down the road from Hale Village.

Lock 47 is built to look like a docker’s warehouse with the spec of a residential tower, located along a branch of the Lea and ripe for riverside activity. It’s inspiring in a way that the Hale Works isn’t, and yet it was almost dismissed for being too tall.

But tallness doesn’t always imply ugliness, as proven by Haringey’s current tallest building. Alexandra Palace is tall and tactful without being an eyesore, precisely because it respects – and even enhances – its surrounding neighbourhood. If developers and planners alike learn to respect the relationships between palaces and the people, we can make tall buildings more popular in the suburbs – not just for those that live inside them, but for those that live around them as well.
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