In 2001, Ken Livingstone struck a deal with the “Corporation”, the Square Mile’s local authority. It went something like this: the then London Mayor would relax restrictions on developers and allow them to build skyscrapers outside of the City in return for substantial investment in deprived inner London boroughs – paid for via a new planning levy.
As a result of the relaxation of planning laws, a glut of skyscrapers have been built outside the perimeters of the Square Mile. The most recent and eye-catching skyscraper to appear is the Shard in London Bridge. It is already the tallest construction in the European Union and dwarfs all around it. Designed by Renzo Piano, who had a hand in Paris’ Pompidou Centre, the Shard is apparently inspired by Canaletto and London’s maritime past.
One prerequisite for major new building projects under Mayor Livingstone’s tenure was that they be based in areas of pre-existing and high-functioning transport hubs. Certainly, the Shard developers would argue that by building in such close proximity to London Bridge rail, bus and underground terminals, they had chosen a very practical site. One major problem, however, is that – and I am sure many people who commute to or through London Bridge will testify – the pre-existing infrastructure is already creaking. How will London Bridge cope when the Shard is at full capacity and all 72 of its inhabitable floors are in use? The knock-on effect for the entire London Underground system could be severe – many more commuters using the tube at a time of cuts to staff numbers and a lack of investment.
In a city like London, where space is precious, we should always keep an eye on the long-term social impact of grand new building projects. We might value a building’s aesthetic design or its green credentials. We might favour creativity and innovation. We might even support more skyscrapers being built in order to help the City keep its competitive edge over other centres of global finance. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that London is a living, working city.
Building vast glass-panelled monuments is all very well, but without the accompanying infrastructure and investment, projects such as the Shard may face real resistance from Londoners in the future.