Living in the shadow of Heathrow and other major airports

A reporter travels to a neighborhood just next to the runways at Heathrow Airport and tries to understand how people live there:

It’s a nice perk, if you don’t mind the to and fro of planes overhead—one taking off or landing every 45 seconds, every day, every year. They soar within a few hundred feet of the rooftops, blocking the sky like giant aluminum birds. And they make a helluva racket too. “It’s almost deafening if you’re standing underneath,” says Bertie Taylor, who photographed Myrtle Avenue for his series Under the Flight Path.

Feltham has been a transportation hub since the early 20th century, when it hosted Britain’s second largest railway yard, targeted by German air strikes during World War II. But it didn’t become the consistently noisy place it is today until January 1, 1946, when an Avro 691 Lancastrian departed Heathrow for Argentina, marking the airport’s first flight. In the 1960s, its two main runways—one located just a quarter-mile northwest of Myrtle Avenue—were extended a few thousand feet to service even bigger planes like the Boeing 747.

Noise levels are allowed to reach up to 94 decibels during the day (equivalent to a jackhammer 50 feet away) and 87 decibels at night (a gas-powered lawn mower)—though they’ve fallen in recent decades with quieter engines and smarter flight paths. Still, last year Heathrow received an average of one noise complaint every seven minutes. Noise isn’t the only nuisance. Nearby communities also receive an extra dose of air pollution from vehicle and aircraft traffic, not to mention the occasional scare: In 2008, a Boeing 777 nearly slammed into Myrtle Avenue after its engines failed.

All this sounds nightmarish—and indeed, it troubles locals. But when Taylor visited Myrtle Avenue in September 2018, curious to see what life near an airport is like, folks seemed more irritated by having their driveways blocked in by planespotters’ cars. Aviation enthusiasts from as far as Germany and the Netherlands throng to the green park near the airport fence to ooh and aah at landing Airbus 380s and Boeing 777s. One middle-aged man even stood atop his van in a nearby field, livestreaming the spectacle on Facebook.

Humans can live in all sorts of conditions, including regular noise and visitors. So what would motivate these residents to stay in this location? A few hypotheses:

1. Housing is cheaper here. The noise would bother a lot of potential homeowners so a dwelling that might be more expensive elsewhere (and this is the expensive London region after all) might be less expensive.

2. Proximity to jobs, particularly in the transportation sector. For people with jobs at Heathrow or in something connected to the air industry, this could be a convenient location.

3. They grew up in this area or have long-term connections to the industries (railways, flying) in the community.

On the other hand, perhaps some of the residents do leave when one of these factors that once pushed them to stay becomes less important. With some personal experience living near a busy railroad line, I know people can get used to noise and rumbling but wouldn’t the average resident leave when they could?

Since airports are not usually too far from dwellings these days (they might have been in previous decades but many metropolitan regions have expanded), someone has to live near the airport. Maybe even some come to like it. But, living that close with the noise and the shadows is a different experience many homeowners would look to avoid.

Increasing the density of London’s suburbs

The mayor of London recently released a new planning document for the city and it includes more housing in the city’s suburban areas:

Often, [suburbia] stays under the radar of urban theorists and policymakers. But it is emerging as a major untapped resource and, therefore, a battleground in the struggle to find somewhere, anywhere, to put new housing. Last week, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, revealed his draft for the new London Plan, the document that will guide the planning decisions of the city’s boroughs. He wants – and who wouldn’t? – more housing, more of it affordable, well designed and energy-efficient, complete with spaces that encourage walking, cycling and the use of public transport. He has limited powers – he can’t, for example, ordain the large-scale public housing programmes that even the estate agents Savills now thinks are necessary – but he can manipulate the planning system to promote some kinds of development over others.

His eyes alighted on the suburbs. Between the First and Second World Wars, while London’s population increased by 17%, its land area doubled, a reflection of its rapid suburban expansion at a much lower density than its historic centre. In theory, this means that if suburban densities could be nudged up, very many more homes could be accommodated within London’s boundaries. As Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, says, Greater London could house 20 million people if it was all built to the same density as the inner borough of Islington.

So Khan wants to encourage, within 800 metres of transport links, developments that provide more housing in the same space. In doing so, he hopes to encourage smaller-scale developers and lower-cost housing, in contrast to the luxury towers promoted by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, in the name of meeting housing needs. This might mean building on gardens or building at four storeys instead of two.

He has, say Tory opponents, “declared war on the suburbs” and will make them “overcrowded and harder to get around”. Yet making suburbs denser could make them better. In principle, having more inhabitants means more life in town centres and high streets, which makes shops and businesses more viable and makes it easier to sustain such things as local bus services.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Building suburbs to higher densities is a popular idea among a number of architects, planners, and urbanists in the United States for many of the same reasons but opposition from established suburbanites can be fierce as increased density is perceived to threaten a suburban way of life (more land, more driving, more exclusivity in terms of class and race).

I wonder if the solution in the London area is in the part cited above: keep the higher densities to mass transit nodes. Plans do not necessarily have to include higher densities everywhere in suburbs; rather, transit-oriented development could concentrate more and cheaper housing in locations where new residents can easily access mass transit options for the entire region.

How much do we know about cities today because of photographs and visual images?

It didn’t take long for photography to become a tool for preserving major cities:

The idea of capturing something in photography before it disappears dates back almost to the dawn of the medium. In 1875, a group called the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London formed in response to the imminent demise of the 17th-century Oxford Arms. Like many coaching inns, the Arms was facing destruction as the city, coming out of the Industrial Revolution, was in a state of major redevelopment. Photographers documented the inn and other soot-stained alleyways, Gothic façades, and rambling wooden structures in glass plate negatives, printed in carbon to make them last…

Ramalingam added that the photographs demonstrate “what parts of London were considered worth preserving” to 1870s Londoners, and about half of these sites are still part of its built environment. A map on one wall plots their current or former location. A teetering house in an 1883 photograph is now replaced by the glassy Gherkin skyscraper, and Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar, pictured in 1878, was later taken apart and then reinstated not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral. More than just preserve a visual memory, the images represent the beginning of the photographic medium being a deliberate part of our historic record.

The photographs here are very interesting. Yet, I would love to see more on the larger question: did photography fundamentally transform how people and societies viewed their major cities? The visual age and the age of megacities are intertwined. Photography arrived around the same time as major change: industrialization and urbanization had arrived in many Western cities by the late 1800s. What if the transformation of London or the phoenix-like rise of Chicago or the changes in Paris weren’t accompanied by photographs? If we just had paintings or text descriptions, would we understand those changes differently? While photographs help us know what we are missing in current cities, they also remind us of how much has disappeared from all the major cities of the world over the centuries.

An award-winning guess at London’s fate in 50 years

Here is part of the winning entry of a UK contest to predict how social science research will affect life in 50 years:

Amidst decentralisation, London continued to grow, steadily gaining devolved powers. As 2043 arrived, the city into which I had moved 28 years previously was unrecognisable. From the 900m high tower in which I now lived, I surveyed a transforming cityscape, embracing recent technological developments. In 2022, Saudi Arabia completed Kingdom Tower, the world’s first kilometre high building. Besides technological innovation, it also had profound cultural implications; a range of social science consultants having pioneered community creation models. Under their guidance, its 5.5million ft2 of floor space offered offices, malls, accommodation and even artificial forests, stimulating a self-contained society with a culture of independence. Twelve years and four towers later, Kingdom City was a thriving metropolis of 2.1 million people. It represented a triumph for private finance and social science collaboration, setting a precedent for socially conscious corporation rule with minimal state involvement. Kingdom City prompted numerous equivalent developments throughout the Middle East and Asia in the late 2030s; social theory informed, self-contained, and privately administered. These express-cities dealt with population problems and boosted economies with ease, vindicating social planning.

Meanwhile, London had developed an immense housing crisis; its ballooning population shackled by construction regulation. London was desperate to emulate aforementioned eastern successes. It turned to its collection of world leading institutions, representing internationally renowned social psychologists, human geographers and many more, to plan ground-breaking reinvention. Throughout the 2040s, backed by multinational finance, London set about implementing their vision. Whilst primarily based around sociological community-seeding-housing ideas, this also facilitated a transport revolution. London already scorned cars, championing cycling and enjoying an unrivalled underground system following four Crossrail projects. Driverless electric vehicles had been increasingly present since the mid-2020s as battery technology improved. By the mid-30s, London proposed banning all human-driven petrol-fuelled vehicles, but the UK government was opposed; concerned that decreased fuel imports might jeopardise Gulf State relations. By the early-2040s, London was powerful enough to press ahead. Again the social sciences, bolstered by increasingly successful corporate ventures into city design, were instrumental in infrastructure planning, embedding the belief that public and corporate desires for liveability and efficiency were compatible. Resultantly, in 2053, the last human drove through the city. Simultaneously, influential internet scholars drove complete 5G rollout, providing unparalleled internet access. Contrastingly, large parts of the rest of the UK lacked 4G, creating a national digital divide. The scene was now set for divorce. In 2056 the government accepted a federalisation referendum. On May 4th 2058, London voted to become the UK’s fifth state.

Today, whilst technically federalised, London is essentially sovereign. Since the early-50s, state involvement has been nominal, particularly following parliament’s relocation to Manchester. London, like many 20th century capitals, now more closely resembles the Martian colonies than the nation surrounding it. These old nation states, largely unaltered from 2015, are increasingly inferior, especially as Space X’s mines and hydroponic innovations further improve city living standards. Social science’s guidance of private capital has enabled Jakarta, Doha and many more to smoothly transcend state structures, each now existing as a well-organised corporate amalgamation. This change is evident in my current work. Whilst trickledown economics and stringent immigration controls have all but ended real-term deprivation, inequality remains entrenched. Employed by London Inc., who are concerned by talent prevention, I am currently developing proposals to stimulate social mobility. This is just one example of how corporate-social science synergy is cultivating prosperous city societies in 2065.

These predictions appear to hinge on social science and private industry working together for London’s good, or at least for technological advancement. How many social scientists today would be interested in such collaboration, particularly if it meant that corporations could profit immensely or that the rich continue to get richer? As the essay hints, such improvements could come at the expense of many other UK residents who are left behind as London continues to grow and the rest of the country falls behind.

Maybe we should just file this away for five decades from now to see if any of this comes true…

The public to ride the mail delivery system once used under London

The Post Office Underground Railway once used below London is set to open soon to the public:

The Post Office Underground Railway—AKA the Mail Rail—was the world’s first driverless electric railway. It launched in 1927 and was used to transport tons of post from one side of London to another, with stops at large railway hubs such as Liverpool Street and Paddington Station, where post could be collected and offloaded for transportation around the rest of the country…

The idea is to create special battery-powered passenger carriages to take people from the car depot and some of the tunnels in a one-kilometer loop. Visitors will be taken 70-feet underground, through Mount Pleasant Station, and will stop to view audiovisual displays recounting the history of the network and what it was like to work down there…

The railways have a 61cm gauge (the width of the track), on top of which small carriages traveled without drivers thanks to electric live rails. In the stations there are two tracks, with carriages going in each direction.

The service continued to operate until 2003, when it was closed down—it had become much cheaper to transport mail by road.

Looks like a cross between a Disney ride and the Tube. I suspect there may just be a tourist market for this ride…see this post from April 2011 about people exploring the system as well as the interest in looking at underground Paris.

Such lines underneath cities may not be all that unusual. Chicago had an underground delivery system as well since it was far more efficient to move some items underground away from the street-level traffic. This was also the impetus behind creating Lower Wacker Drive. How many major cities have such tunnels underground, how many of them are well secured (free from ne’er-do-wells or flooding issues), and are these all tourist opportunities waiting to be opened?

More on luxury basements under London properties

The building of luxury basements under London properties continues:

A lack of room and strict planning laws dictate that the facade of many of London’s picturesque Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian-era neighborhoods must maintain their original character and outward appearance…

“The price per square foot (of basement extension) in areas we work in is probably £400 to £500 per square foot (between $660 and $830 per sq ft). The extra space this brings is probably worth double that,” he added…

“I think for any property with a value over £2 million ($3.2 million) a basement extension is certainly a consideration for the owners,” explained Rob Atkins of London estate agency, Domus Nova. “If you’ve lived in a house for 15 and 20 years and you cannot get a move for the right value then it is an option that can suit that growing family…

“Therefore I wouldn’t be surprised if you see that kind of basement living incorporated in houses for example in Paris, Rome, Vienna or Moscow in the future,” he added.

Without much regulation, it sounds like the incentives are generally there for wealthy owners to create these basements rather than move.

Many of these basements are being built in neighborhoods that are not the oldest in London. At the same time, I would be interested to hear about how such work could interfere with other underground services, whether that is sewers or the Underground or other properties.

Is there any place where this might work in the United States? It would likely have to be in a super-dense area where housing is in high demand. Perhaps Manhattan or San Francisco?

The Economist calls for more gov’t power to construct needed mass transit in London

London needs more mass transit capacity – and The Economist argues governmental bodies need more power to expand the system.

Whereas the number of people driving in London is falling, Tube and bus use is surging. Each day 3.7m people use the Underground while 6.4m take a bus. Once-quiet routes are crammed. The London Overground, a rebranded and improved railway line, carries 120m passengers a year, up from just 33m in 2008. The Docklands Light Railway carried 66m passengers in 2008. It now carries 100m…

The changing character of the capital makes things trickier. Much of the city’s population growth over the past decade has been in east London, which is poorly served by the Tube. Parts of inner London such as Kensington and Chelsea have lost people. In future, thinks Sir Peter Hendy, TfL’s boss, most population growth will be in the suburbs. Yet jobs are becoming increasingly clustered in the middle—in the City, Canary Wharf and the West End. “If you’re an insurance company, you don’t look at a map and settle on Enfield,” says Sir Peter. London will not just have more people: it will have more people travelling farther to their jobs…

Grand projects help, at huge cost. But there is a simpler, cheaper way of adding capacity, insists Sir Peter: make much better use of London’s huge existing commuter railway network. Which means giving him more control…

London’s transport could be improved even more if the mayor were given control over local taxes. Crossrail is being financed through a combination of government cash, fares and an increase in land values. A business-rate supplement on non-domestic properties with a rateable value of £55,000 ($80,000) or more has supplied £4 billion for the project. This arrangement could be extended for Crossrail 2, and more widely.

This is an interesting look at how London is going about tackling an issue many cities are facing: how to provide more mass transit amidst growing populations. Additionally, as the article notes, numerous interests may have opposition if lines are not placed to their liking or financial pressure falls on them. Large infrastructure projects aren’t necessarily easy to carry out anyway and all of these projects in London will require quite a bit of power to pull off.

The fate of major world cities could depend on these projects: as they continue to grow, they simply can’t provide more roads and many places do not exactly desire more suburban communities for the wealthy (though more of this may happen, including in London). Yet, the more cities grow, the projects become more and more difficult to put together because of hearing from different groups, moving people, and paying for land and higher construction costs.

When a new building can melt cars, the building is not a good neighbor

Here is a story out of London of a new impressive-looking glass building that has an unfortunate side effect: it focuses the sun on a nearby area and causes destruction.

A new London skyscraper that reflects sunlight at an intensity capable of melting parts of a car became the latest attraction in the city’s financial district on Tuesday as the developers acted to find a quick fix.

The glass-clad tower, dubbed the Walkie Talkie for its distinctive flared shape, was blamed this week for warping the wing mirror, panels and badge on a Jaguar car parked on the street below the 37-storey building that is under construction.

Business owners opposite 20 Fenchurch Street pointed to sun damage on paintwork on the front of their premises and carpet burns. TV crews fried an egg in the sun beam reflected from a concave wall of the tower watched by bemused spectators…

The architect is Uruguayan-born Rafael Vinoly and the building’s concave design means developers can squeeze more money from its larger upper floors, where the views over London promise to be magnificent and rents are higher.

It is not the first time a Vinoly building has been linked to intense rays of sunlight. The Vdara Hotel in Las Vegas allegedly produced intense areas of heat, according to reports in U.S. media three years ago.

Perhaps there is room to wax about humanity’s attempts to tame nature and yet we can’t even master the angle of the sun’s rays.

But, this would also be a good time to note that buildings don’t exist in isolation to their surroundings. I remember talking with an architect a few years ago and talking about how architects might think about the larger social fabric, not just the footprint of their specific development. There is a lot of work that goes into designing big buildings but that can be for naught if the building sticks out from the surrounding area. This doesn’t mean all buildings have to be of the same design or look the same; fitting into particular styles is one part of it (think of the similarities of the tallest buildings in Chicago’s skyline) but so is whether the building is inviting to people passing by. New Urbanists make this argument: Americans have tended to stress the private realm of single-family homes but homes can also be oriented to the neighborhood, helping to promote social interaction through some design choices. Does the new building contribute to or detract from public spaces? This is particularly important in dense urban spaces – London definitely qualifies – where space is at a premium.

If your building is burning nearby areas or blocks the sunlight in drastic ways or presents a monolithic front to what was a lively street, then the building is not being a good neighbor. Looks and maximizing floor space aren’t everything; there is a social dimension to buildings that goes a long way toward whether the building is well regarded for decades or not.

The human eyes and hours needed to review CCTV footage to find terrorists

A common tool in fighting urban terrorism today is the closed-circuit camera system. However, it still takes a tremendous amount of personnel and time to go through all of the available tape. Here is a summary of what was required to put together the narrative of the 2005 bombing in London:

Six days after the attack, police start linking these events together. “By 13 July, the police had strong evidence that Khan, Tanweer, Hussain and Lindsay were the bombers and that they had died in the attacks.” But it was no small feat: Police collected 80,000 CCTV tapes, amounting to hundreds of thousands of hours of footage. The London police brought on some 400 extra officers to help with the grunt of it.

“The scale is enormous,” the narrative concluded.

As Alexis Madrigal writes at The Atlantic, although we have the technology to capture and record every inch of a city in real time, the process very much depends on a human eye to analyze. “Right now, there is no video software that can do this type of analysis,” he writes, “not even in a first-pass way.”

Even so, given the history here, it seems likely that given enough time, the perpetrators of the bombing will be found on camera. Whether the police can connect the thread among all the disparate sources of information is another matter.

In other words, you can collect big data but it still requires humans to make sense of it all. I imagine there is a big opportunity here for someone to create reliable recognition software but this may be a task where humans are simply better.

Wired says the data in Boston is being crowdsourced but the investigation will not:

It is unclear whether law enforcement had overhead cameras mounted in helicopters or other aircraft over the Marathon. (Boston-area cops don’t have spy drones — yet.) But the era of readily-accessible commercial imaging tools provides a twist on the exponential growth of surveillance tech used by law enforcement and homeland security. The data on your phone can become an adjunct to police during the highest-profile investigations.

That isn’t an unfettered benefit to police. The military has found that its explosion of imagery data has stressed its ability to process it, to the point where its futurists are hunting for algorithms that can pre-select images a human analyst sees. Davis requested that any spectator providing media showing the attacks indicate the time they collected the data so police “don’t need to go through the electronic signature.”

Lots of work to do.

A boom in “mega basements” in London draw ire

The London neighborhood of Kensington is discussing rules to ban “mega basements” being constructed under the home and property of the wealthy:

The “iceberg home” mega basements dug three or four storeys into the ground with private cinemas, spas and swimming pools are set to be banned in one of London’s most affluent areas.

New draft rules that will limit basements to a single storey and impose much tighter limits on how far they can extend under a garden were today published by Kensington and Chelsea council.

The move follows a huge surge in applications for basements over recent years as wealthy owners have sought to by-pass planning restrictions on changes to their homes above ground by massively extending their living space underneath.

The subterranean extensions have often outraged local residents because of the noise, dust and disruption caused by digging them out, which can last for up to two years…

One of the most notorious applications was by former Foxtons estate agency owner Jon Hunt who successfully submitted plans for a cavernous basement under his home in Kensington Palace Gardens that included a tennis court and a showroom for his collection of Ferraris.

This sounds very similar to anti-McMansion ordinances with outcry over the disturbance to the neighborhood and restrictions on how big these basements can be. But, on the other hand, there is a big difference: these underground basements are hidden out of view and theoretically shouldn’t change the visible character of the neighborhood much. In some ways, the basements are genius: why not make use of underground space that is less disruptive and doesn’t alter the neighborhood’s appearance? I wonder if this is really just about construction inconvenience or it is more of a reaction to rich newcomers making changes.