LONDON is emerging from recession as a beacon of hope for future British growth. It has the right mix of talents – in technology, creative industries, and finance – to establish a new benchmark for the few world cities that will dominate the next half-century. But it can also learn from past achievements to build on this promise.
This month marks 150 years since the first Underground line was built from Paddington to the City, beneath what is now Euston Road. Back then, who could have foreseen how underground railways would make such a difference to congested cities? From Mexico City and Madrid to Delhi and Moscow, this solution has now become the answer to otherwise inevitable gridlock.
Crossrail is the current reinvention of that concept – large, comfortable, air-conditioned trains will run every two minutes through the heart of London, linking the City and Canary Wharf to Heathrow and the outer boroughs. Now fully-funded and spending £100m a month on jobs and infrastructure, it is the future for cities like ours.
But London can do more. It can redouble its advantage by clustering dense development around new transport hubs. Towers and skyscrapers are the ideal solution, situated both over, and next to, stations. Given that railway termini are not usually attractive environments, London should look to put bulky buildings there, while allowing nearby historic areas to provide character and charm. Both can happily co-exist. And as we come out of recession, the downturn in some parts of the property market will soon end, current space will fill up, and new space will continue to be needed.
That is what has driven the last two decades of planning in the City. There are numerous Underground and mainline stations serving London, and 95 per cent of City workers come in each day by public transport. Given the way that commuters travel and work, it is both possible and sensible to have striking tall buildings that enhance the skyline, while still keeping the charm of medieval streets, open spaces, livery halls and everything else that makes the Square Mile unique. And why be so defensive about the impact that tall buildings can have on our horizon – designed by some of the best architects in the world and configured to suit the needs of the occupier? They bring style, variety and excitement to our surroundings.
Back in the late 1980s, if we had not made the decisive shift to favour tall buildings, which of the numerous global businesses that have chosen to locate here would have made that same choice? The tall building solution is utterly sustainable for the future, because it works for Londoners and their daily lives; great for the national economy, because of the huge revenue that it delivers; and an object lesson for other aspiring cities around the world. This is our competitive advantage. Prime Minister, take note.
Michael Cassidy is chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Property Investment Board and a senior non-executive director of Crossrail.