Ealing Friends of the Earth

Towers or Terraces

Towers versus Low Rise Housing

Summary

Ealing Friends of the Earth believes that tower blocks are not appropriate for Ealing.

  • Towers damage the environment. Studies show they can double embodied carbon in construction compared to low-rise. They also consume far more energy during their lifetimes.
  • Towers put residents at risk from fire, pandemics, power-cuts, extreme weather and antisocial behaviour. Climate change is increasing the danger.
  • Towers provide no more housing than high density low-rise terraces.
  • Towers do not benefit the local community and are often speculative developments for sale to overseas buyers. The inhuman scale reduces chance encounters, creates vertical sprawl, and results in gentrification and inequality.

Introduction

The proliferation of tower blocks in Ealing is environmentally damaging, puts residents at risk, provides no more social housing than terraced housing, is unwanted by the community, and is a blot on the landscape and architecture of our borough.

Widespread construction of towers in the 1960’s was subsequently seen as a great mistake and architects found that they could achieve similar densities with lower rise buildings more akin to the traditional terraces common in the historic centres of continental European cities (Paris, Barcelona, etc.) and in central London. But we seem to have forgotten the lesson.

1) Towers are more environmentally damaging than low-rise

Tall towers damage the environment more than high-density low-rise buildings, both in construction and use. Demolition of existing buildings that could have been re-purposed and upgraded makes this worse.

  • The embodied carbon in tower construction increases with the height of building. The reason is the higher quantity of steel and concrete required in the foundations and in the building frame. “if you go from six storeys to 20 storeys, energy intensity per square metre is doubled.”
  • Carbon emissions in-use, rise with height of building. Research funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council studied buildings in 12 London boroughs. High-rise buildings use more energy per square metre than low-rise equivalents and emit twice as
    much carbon, according to University College London’s (UCL’s) Energy Institute. Electricity use is nearly two and a half times greater in office buildings of 20 or more storeys, compared with buildings of six storeys or fewer. Gas use is also 40% greater. The research also studied residential buildings. The team concluded that the results were due to the physical and meteorological consequences of building higher.
  • Demolition of existing buildings to build towers results in more carbon emissions than refurbishment of the existing buildings.

2) Towers put residents at risk of:

  • Fire – upper floors are not accessible to fire brigade ladders.
  • Pandemics – access is via enclosed hallways and lifts in which contagion is more likely. (Further pandemics are likely because of human encroachment on the natural world.)
  • Power-cuts – We face an uncertain future in terms of energy as fossil fuels are phased out. If power fails, residents who are effectively dependent on lifts will be trapped, and other building services such as heating/cooling, ventilation and even water supply, may fail.
  • Extreme Weather – Exposed to full sunlight (no trees are high enough to shade them) and with huge expanses of glass, towers are vulnerable to extreme heat that becomes ever more likely with climate change. They are also more exposed to wind and cold in winter, meaning higher fuel bills.
  • Anti-social behaviour – the corridors and lifts of towers are notoriously difficult to police, even with CCTV.

3) Towers provide no more housing than high density low-rise

  • Low rise terraces of about 8 storeys common in central London and on the continent, can provide equally dense housing without the problems of the towers. “it is quite simply a myth that high-rise means high density. Manhattan, with its iconic canyons of skyscrapers, has a density ratio of about 27,000 people per km² making it by far New York’s densest borough. Yet the centres of Paris and Barcelona, with their tight, compact grids of mid-rise apartment blocks and a complete absence of high-rises, generally offer density ratios of 26,000/km² and up to 36,000/km² respectively.”
  • Existing urban designs such as the terraces and mansion blocks in areas of Paris and Inner London demonstrate that a density of between 200 homes per ha (Paris) and 150 homes per ha (Marylebone inner London) are achievable with street scale architecture of 5 to 8 storeys. These alternatives to towers provide better street scale urban design.
  • In many circumstances, the densities achieved by tall towers can be achieved with lower-rise slab or courtyard buildings. It is not always necessary to build tall to achieve high densities and energy use could, in many cases, be greatly reduced by building in different forms on fewer storeys.
  • Ealing could look to architects and developers of innovative net-zero carbon housing, such as those behind the BedZED housing project in South London.

4) Towers are unwanted by the community, do not solve London’s housing problem and degrade our cityscape

The argument that we need to squeeze more people into the borough whatever the sacrifice to our urban environment isn’t convincing – otherwise we would build on all the parks too.

  • High-rise buildings separate people from the street, are not on a human scale, reduce chance encounters, are vertical sprawl, result in gentrification and inequality.
  • Tall buildings offer increased profits for developers. However, the higher a building, the more expensive the construction. Thus, the tallest buildings tend to be luxury units, often for global investors.
  • Less social housing. The towers being built by Catalyst Housing Association and MountAnvil next to Acton Main Line station, replacing the Friary Road estate, provide less socialhousing units than the estate they replace: the 990 residential units, includes 162 social rentunits and 66 intermediate units (part buy part rent, so still expensive); the old low-rise estatebeing demolished, comprised 230 residential units, including 225 social rent units and 5 privately owned units.
  • The Friary Road towers are being marketed heavily overseas, e.g. in China (there is a sales video in Chinese and the brochure is in English and Chinese. Thus there is little or no benefit to Londoners and brings greater overcrowding.
    Ealing’s citizens have had enough with at least two campaigns against the borough being overrun by towers. Protests against the latest Friary Road plans included over 1300 emails from the area near the development to the leader of Ealing Council and/or the developers, plus hundreds of formal objections to the attempt to take over the publicly-owned common land Friars Place Green, with zero in favour. Towers are political poison.
  • Erecting garish towers of luxury flats ignores the evidence that modern “creative clusters” – in design, marketing, the arts and entertainment – are drawn to historic neighbourhoods and old converted buildings. By building more we are destroying the very heritage that draws people and businesses to our borough.

Full Report

The full report with references is available as a PDF here.