How many times should we say it? Don’t build residential towers. Don’t make or let people live in them, least of all families. They are antisocial, high-maintenance, disempowering, unnecessary, mostly ugly, and they can never be truly safe. No tower is fireproof. No fire engine can reach up 20 storeys, period.
Towers are again raising their heads across the urban landscape, creatures of egotistical architects, greedy developers and priapic mayors. We gasp at their magnificence, their extravagance, their sheer height. Yet like Grenfell they are alien creatures in a British city. They do not converse with their context, they thumb their noses at it.
There is no need to build high at all. The developers’ cry, that cities must build high to “survive”, is self-serving rubbish, the more absurd when their towers are left half-empty. The principal reserve of residential space in British cities is derelict land and the under-occupation of existing houses. Unless we wish to build at the squalid densities of Mumbai and Hong Kong, high buildings require space round them and extensive ground servicing.
Hence the most “crowded” parts of London are not around towers but in eight-storey Victorian terraces. The boulevards of central Paris have treble London’s residential density without towers. Westminster council’s aborted Paddington Pole, at some 60 storeys, had fewer housing units than the high-density street housing suggested by its opponents. The tall blocks wanted by Boris Johnson for Clerkenwell’s Mount Pleasant estate are at a lower density than the low-rise town houses proposed by the consultants Create Streets.
Besides, people are entitled to the city they want. When in the 1980s Liverpool’s Militant movement asked Everton’s inhabitants what should be done with their towers, the reply was pull them down and give us back the streets. It was done.
Today’s surge in tower building – some 400 are in the pipeline of London’s uncontrolled property market – is driven by a quite different demand. It is from high-income migratory couples and foreign buy-to-leave investors. These people do not want a neighbourhood. Their social life is dispersed. They want a locked gate, a concierge and a pied-à-terre with a view. They want a gated community in the sky. When I moved from a tower flat to a street flat, I encountered a completely different city, exchanging what amounted to a self-catering hotel for a community of neighbours.