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The Case for Revolutionary Low Rise

Emerging in the 1960s and 70s as a reaction to the Corbusian high-rise ‘tower in the park’ model of housing development, ‘Low-Rise, High-density’ (LRHD) housing sought to overcome the perceived inhumanity of large-scale urban renewal through an emphasis on innovative dwelling typologies and experimental types of organisation at a liveable and sociable scale. Ushering in a new epoch, Westminster’s Lillington Gardens estate was one of the first and offered an alternative means to provide dwellings at low height through undulating and staggered terraces of mixed flats and scissor-plan townhouses. Its provocative forms ushered in a new generation of public projects and had a longstanding influence on housing design in the Netherlands, Germany and the United States.

As the UK grapples to respond to the contemporary challenges of housing shortages, connectivity and climate change, the densification of cities and retrofitting suburban landscapes are emerging as important themes. In this spatial redress, thoughtful LRHD typologies offer an approach to development which enables an increased number of homes without reducing quality of life or negatively impacting existing neighbourhoods.

Suburbia as we know it today is a product of the 20th century, in particular of the 1920s and 1930s and the intense period of construction that saw the rapid advance of ‘Metroland’, but also the advent of sprawling council-built ‘cottage estate.’ During these years hundreds of thousands of low density two storey single family homes were created all over the UK both by the public and private sectors. Facilitated by generous public grant regimes, railways and road building programmes these landscapes took their spatial cue from ‘The Garden City’ movement of the late 19th century and later by planner Raymond Unwin’s ‘Nothing Gained From Overcrowding’ which established a low density approach of 12 homes per acre or 30 dwellings per hectare that was enshrined in the Housing Act of 1919. The legacy of these years can be seen across the vast residential landscapes of the West Midlands, Greater Manchester or in Outer London where average densities are just 16 dwellings per hectare. It also set an expectation for the look, feel and layout of homes that endures to this day.

For housing reformers of the early 20th century dense and compact cities meant pollution, noise and disease. In the first half of the 21st century urban density means; economic activity, social connectivity, land efficiency, services, amenity and opportunity. However in the past 20 years, the  image of the compact city has manifested itself in monuments to hyper-density and mega-towers that from London to Manchester make intense use of land, but can often be to the detriment to quality of life, place, the environment, social cohesion
and local affordability.

Through proposed changes to regulatory frameworks and planning policy, councils across the UK are expected to deliver more new homes and develop effective guidance to scrutinise design proposals that incorporate and uphold local opinion. To do this, planning departments need to be equipped with alternative tools for assessing high density development and encourage best practice, while protecting an
area’s character.

In responding in suburban and existing built-up areas, a LRHD approach can potentially achieve both: deliver growth, but also respond sympathetically to a predominate two-three storey context that makes up so much of the fabric of British cities. The challenge for designers and planning departments lies in demonstrating that intervention in traditional residential neighbourhoods is possible and that such an approach may be a social, environmental and economic necessity to guarantee the future vitality of our cities.

Lillington Square, London
Penns Landing Square, Philadelphia
Suntech apartments, California