How are protected views shaping cities?

Leo Hollis
The Guardian
July 14, 2015

 The Oxford skyline is preserved by a set of protected views. Photograph: John Harper/Getty Images/Flickr RF
The Oxford skyline is preserved by a set of protected views. Photograph: John Harper/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Oxford is under threat. In recent months, the council has been responding to widespread concerns that the city of “dreaming spires” was about to be swamped by a rash of tall new buildings. As a result, alongside EnglishHeritage and other agencies, the council has devised policies that create a series of protected views, triangular sections that cut across the map in order to preserve the vertical skyline of the city.

A selection of city panoramas from particular points of historic or local interest have been protected, taking in not just individual historical buildings but also the topography, the city as a landscape of natural features, variegated heights and forms, combining into a pleasing image. As the interim report for the OxfordViews study says, this harmony is constantly in jeopardy, facing “the continuing challenges of building within the city to meet the demands of a modern society.”

What is the right shape for a city? This is a question that underpins the policy of protected views today. Since the 1960s, different city governments have looked at the preservation of views as a way of controlling the shape, in particular the vertical outline, of cities. How tall should a building be and where should it fit in? Are skyscrapers only for downtown? What kind of building – office, monument, apartment block – should be allowed to rise into the sky? What can it obscure and what must it not overshadow? Like with the green belt, devised in the 1930s to limit the outward expansion of the city in the face of railways and the car, today we face a crisis of verticality.

 Preserving a rural idyll in London’s green belt: Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire. Photograph: Moravka Images/Alamy
Preserving a rural idyll in London’s green belt: Old Amersham in Buckinghamshire. Photograph: Moravka Images/Alamy

Protected views are a fluid combination of concerns relating to the transformation of the city. For some, cities are changing too fast and in the wrong places. They are losing their character and being replaced by an ubitquitous glass and steel architecture that offers no sense of location. Tall towers are replacing the human scale of the city’s heritage. We are destroying the role of topography, ignoring and overpowering that natural surrounding that gives the city a sense of place. Protected views are ways of managing change: restricting growth in some parts, ring-fencing and preserving the significant aspects. It prioritises the ocular encounter with the city. The metropolis must “look” right to be right.

Vancouver was one of the first cities to organise its preservation policy in the late 1980s according to a series of “view corridors” that took in the balance between a rising downtown, the port and waterways and the North Shore mountains in the background.

At the same time, there was public concern about the “Manhattanisation” of the financial district of San Franciscothat many people thought would damage the “city pattern”. This was developed into a general plan passed into law in 1995, including the preservation of “major views whenever it is feasible, with special attention to the characteristic views of open space and water that reflect the natural setting of the city and give a colourful and refreshing contrast to man’s development.”

A similar commitment to preserving London’s heritage with the development of “sightlines” was included in the 2004 London plan, published by mayor Ken Livingstone, and based around the aspects and panorama that include historical sites such as St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and Westminster Palace.

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