Building community while
building tall

Tall buildings change the look of low-rise neighbourhoods, but Andrew Harland argues that this visibility can dominate the planning process to the exclusion of something more important – how a place feels and works.

Done well, the public realm around tall buildings can make people linger instead of heading for the lift. It can be a gift. 

While skylines keep rising, some of the big issues associated with building tall seem to be stuck at ground zero. Most pressing is the impact they have on community.

Tall buildings do change the look of low-rise residential neighbourhoods, but this visibility has been allowed to dominate the planning process, and public debate – and less forgivably, design review. It dominates to the exclusion of something more important – changes to the way that neighbourhoods feel and work.

 

Striking the right balance

When you start with what tall buildings look like and leave the space around them out of the debate, then development can misfire. All too easily, you end up with bitter winds whipping round the corners of buildings and narrow, gloomy canyons in between them.

Street life needs sunlight to succeed and the shadow cast in spring and autumn in particular needs careful planning for. You are more likely to achieve a development that feels welcoming if you start with a focus on the public realm. This is where the identity and character of the place can be expressed, and lives overlap. Done well, the public realm around tall buildings can make people linger instead of heading for the lift. It can be a gift to the neighbourhood.

It is true that tall buildings come with their own particular hurdles, like having to manage intensive servicing at their base. But even this does not automatically need to compromise the public realm. When solutions are identified early on, with thoughtful surface access strategies or basement loading, then potentially attractive open space is less likely to be sacrificed down the line.

In London’s Barbican, podiums help to mitigate the dominance of the architecture

Making a place feel humane

If the aim is the creation of convivial spaces, then an elegant landing becomes more likely. This is because the focus of design moves to ground level and the lower three storeys, not just to how development looks at a distance.  

Designs to mitigate scale were pioneered back in the 1960s, with London’s Barbican  deploying podiums to reduce the dominance of its towers, and yet mitigation is still too rarely promoted by developers. Other options include suspended canopies, trees to soften and frame lower floors and screen the upper floors, and glazing and other frameworks that create a false ceiling to public space.

The problem is that residential towers are not naturally sociable places. You pass only a handful of front doors on the way to the lift, and your feeling of connection with the public realm diminishes sharply above the fifth floor. So for new and existing communities to meet, the public realm needs to work hard at feeling relaxed and inviting. The most promising places for chance encounter, like the route from school, need to be well defined and enhanced.

Interestingly, the Private Rental Sector is already intent on curating public space well. Research has taught that residents are twice as likely to stay if they have got know even just one person where they live. Public realm that is used to host activities from market stalls and pop-ups to table tennis and barbeques will trigger new connections.

I think there is just one thing to remember in planning tall buildings – that the street has to be planned as well as the sky.

Andrew Harland is the Chairman of LDA Design. Andrew co-led our work on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. 

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