The Heathrow site would become “a West London counterpoint to Canary Wharf” under the proposal to turn Terminals 1, 2 and 3 into a mixed-use commercial development, put a retail park at Terminal 4 and build homes for 30,000 people across four so-called “garden suburbs”.
The report was authored by Graeme Bell, who is vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association.It argues that a garden city on the Heathrow site would utilise its existing transport and commercial infrastructure, but would do so by providing housing at lower densities than typical modern developments.
“I sense the public would like developments to have a little more space. They don’t want to feel as if they’re living in each other’s pockets,” Mr Bell said.
The prospect of a new generation of garden cities was raised in March after David Cameron, prime minister, called for more smaller-scale developments akin to Letchworth or Welwyn in Hertfordshire, describing them as “green, planned, secure, with gardens, places for children to play and characterful houses, not just car-dominated concrete grids.”
Mr Bell said he expected the report would spark a hostile reaction in some quarters but said any discussion of the area’s potential uses was worthwhile.“There’s been a lot of debate about Heathrow as an airport. But no one has speculated about what you could do with nearly 5 square miles of land within the M25 if it were available.”
For somebody who has advised the government at the highest level, this proposal is astonishingly naive. For a start, it makes two assumptions which are grossly ambitious, especially given the reality of planning and development in the UK.
The first assumption is that a brand new hub airport could and should be built in the first place. I have already outlined 10 solid reasons why a new airport in the Thames estuary is a bad idea, and much of this revolves around the seismic shift in London's geography that would be caused by making such a move. If you think flights from Heathrow are expensive enough now, imagine what the passenger handling fee would be in this new airport!
The second assumption is that the construction of a new Thames Hub airport would automatically result in the closure of Heathrow airport. History has shown that when cities embark in the development of new airport projects, the existing airport often remains open, even if this was not part of the original plan. There are numerous cities in Asia in particular which have kept their original airport open long after the construction of a new airport, with the older airport often, but not always, being used for domestic flights. Examples of cities which still have two airports, despite the newer airport having enough on-site capacity (whether built out or not) to handle all flights include the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan's capital Taipei, and the Thai capital Bangkok.
New airports will always be much further away from the centre of the city they serve, and that is why the original airports can often be so much more attractive for shorter domestic flights. In the most extreme example, the new Montréal Mirabel airport was supposed to be the main hub airport for all of eastern Canada, but regulations requiring all long-haul Flights to Canada from Europe to pass through Montréal were lifted, making Toronto the main hub city.
Very few airlines could be tempted to transfer their flights away from the much more conveniently located Dorval (now Trudeau) airport, and after limping on for many years, Mirabel finally closed its doors as a commercial passenger airport in 2004.
I am always interested in looking at interesting new urban development proposals, but this is not one of them. Let's give the benefit of the doubt and assume that Heathrow does close (even if there are a lot of rumblings suggesting the government will actually end up doing a big U-turn over a third runway).
What sort of development would be best suited for the former airport site? Garden cities were a romantic movement a century ago when there was a lot less pressure on land than there is now. They might easily be mashed up with the latest sustainability buzzwords, but they are actually nothing of the sort.
Whilst some garden space is always desirable, the more space that is given over to gardens, the more any urban development inevitably has to sprawl in order to house the same population. That is why housing developers prefer to cram in as many houses as they can onto each site, even though the design standards of so many new developments remain atrociously poor. This is the challenge for urban planners -- how to raise the bar to accommodate as many people as possible, whilst still maintaining a high quality urban environment - not to mistakenly believe that watering down a development proposal by reducing its density will result in better quality, when it clearly will not. Look at any of the most desirable property locations worldwide, and you will see that they are nearly always both high density and high quality.
There is another reason why the Heathrow site in particular would have to be developed at a high density, and that is because of the billions of pounds which have been invested in rail infrastructure. There are very few airports in the world which have two entirely separate rail networks running into them, and fewer still which have multiple stations on the same site. Another £17 billion is being invested in the crossrail project, which should further improve rail access to the Heathrow airport site. Any proposed new development following the airport closure would have to involve clusters of high rise buildings around the stations in order to make the best use of this infrastructure - although high rise does not have to mean lack of park space, nor does it mean the whole site has to be high rise.
A high density Heathrow New Town could still have plenty of space for a network of linear parks with linked cycleways and jogging trails, and more garden space might be provided around the edge of the site. For the time being however, any such proposals are of course completely academic.