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Can a city be too tall? Londoners think so, says new study

A Brexit-style poll reveals Londoners want to limit skyscraper development

London’s skyline is changing too fast for some
Photo by Eric Huybrechts

London is in the midst of an unprecedented building boom, adding more more than 400 high-rise buildings to its urban core. A revealing survey claims a majority of the people who live there aren’t happy about the rising skyline, with many Londoners hoping to cap the height of new buildings and limit the overall number of supertalls.

Don’t worry, this isn’t the Brexit for London development—at least not yet. The vote wasn’t a national referendum; rather, it was a survey of 500 Londoners conducted by Ipsos MORI, a U.K.-based research institute, for the Skyline Campaign, a group that believes new skyscrapers are destroying London’s urban fabric.

Even when you factor in the inherent biases of the survey—including questions about how skyscrapers are "damaging what makes London special"—the answers highlight some troubling concerns that residents have about density in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Londoners have strong feelings about tall buildings
Ipsos MORI

It’s not necessarily that those who disapprove of skyscrapers are against adding density—in fact, respondents overwhelmingly say they want to see the city add more low-rise housing—it’s more that many proposed buildings, even those just 20 stories, are deemed "too tall." And as the study notes, there’s also a general distrust of developers, with about half of Londoners polled agreeing with the sentiment that tall buildings are mostly being built to serve the needs of rich people.

"This and other recent surveys show a clear desire for more control on the height of new buildings in London, and a concern that new towers are mostly for wealthy foreigners, and do not provide affordable housing," says Ipsos MORI’s Ben Page, one of the study’s authors.

Londoners who live in denser neighborhoods are less happy with tall buildings
Ipsos MORI

What’s most problematic for pro-growth advocates is that it’s the people who live in the densest areas of the city who seem to be most strongly against adding more height: 49 percent of Inner Londoners say there are too many tall buildings, compared to only 30 percent of those who live in the outer boroughs. Usually it’s the people who live in these dense urban neighborhoods who are most in favor of taller buildings, while those who live in low-rise neighborhoods fear anything taller than their own home.

Anti-density sentiments like this are especially worrying in a place like London, where wealth segregation can really only be addressed by adding more housing units in already-dense, transit-rich neighborhoods. But this notion that hobbling skyscrapers will somehow fix inequality issues is one that’s catching on. In a few US cities, voters will have the opportunity to bid their own Brexit-like farewells to development. Santa Monica’s LUVE initiative, on the fall ballot, would make it practically impossible to build structures over two stories. In Los Angeles, an anti-development measure that specifically targets building heights has reportedly collected enough signatures to land on next spring’s ballot.

In London, I could actually see an eventual moratorium on all buildings over 50 stories; this particular group has already successfully forced Renzo Piano to slash the height of his "Paddington Pole" from 72 to 26 stories. But the idea that Londoners would have to vote to approve the height of each and every building over 20 stories would grind the city’s development process to a halt. Maybe that’s the ultimate goal of the Skyline Campaign.