We are currently living in a world where sustainable development is the foundation for planning decisions. Population pressures, housing and transport problems are some of the main issues that we must tackle. High rise development may be a solution to these problems, providing that we can remove the stigma that is associated with building upwards.
High rise developments allow inner city development at much higher densities (PPG3 – at least 30 dwellings per hectare), which means more affordable housing and less pressure on transport, as more people are closer to work. Other advantages of higher densities presented are: more opportunities for interaction and diversity, improved viability of and access to community services and economies of infrastructure. Building upwards rather than outwards also means that urban sprawl is prevented and the important greenbelt land surrounding the urban area is conserved. High quality design can sometimes mean that each flat or “pod” has the same safety specifications as most modern cars, according to housing experts.
Modern day high-rise developments can be very attractive proving that they are designed in a specific way. For example, Beetham Tower in Manchester is designed using an ambitious and postmodern approach made mainly of glass and steel. The half of the tower below the cantilever is dedicated to the Hilton hotel, whilst the half above the cantilever contains 213 apartments. The tower’s designer, Ian Simpson, lives in the top two floors of the tower in a £3 million apartment. One argument is that high-rise development like this is usually only for the very wealthy, as various football players also inhabit the building. Another example of modern high-rise urban living is the London Docklands scheme, typically Canary Wharf, which has many modern flats. However, again they are considered to be middle class housing, which do not represent lower income people. However, this problem is being tackled by regeneration schemes, such as at Park Hill in Sheffield, where Urban Splash have been given £150 million of public money to regenerate the estate, which is a listed building. Also Trellick Tower in west London (designed by Goldfinger) is a good example of high-rise regeneration and Bethnal Green in London, which previously suffered from high unemployment, crime and social exclusion.
There has been much debate over the costs and benefits of high-rise development in the past. High rise development was very popular in the 1960s as pressures of population growth and land shortage was increasing (urbanisation) following the end of the war (many houses had been bombed) and regeneration schemes were existent. High-rise was one of the alternative options to the New Town movement. It was adopted as an almost universal solution to housing problems in the mid-twentieth century. The idea of high-rise stemmed from the work of Le Corbusier, who was a Swiss-French architect who is thought to have pioneered modern architecture by providing better living conditions for crowded cities. High-rise buildings were designed with park land surrounding them to form a communal open space; however this space was often neglected and vandalised. Le Corbusier believed that these communal spaces would amalgamate the residents from above. The work of Le Corbusier was one of a utopian quality focusing on ideal physical form, such as L’Unite d’ Habitation (vertical garden city). Society was at a point where technical possibilities were being uncovered. Park Hill estate in Sheffield and the Byker estate in Newcastle are good examples of 1960s high-rise architecture. There were open galleries (with a quadrangle in the centre) as opposed to a central corridor. However, there are many examples throughout the country of central corridor high-rise developments, such as Bethnal Green in London.
High-rise buildings suffered various problems. Firstly it was much more expensive to repair the flats due to their height and difficulty in accessibility. They are more costly to maintain than normal houses. Secondly, security in high-rise buildings was very lacking, as the sheer number of people coming in and out meant strangers could easily enter. This was reflected by an absence of defensible space, lack of privacy and isolation. The old system of high rise development was developed without reference to social implications i.e. mass re-homing but the new homes were remote from where they originally lived.
Thirdly, their location was often very unpopular as they were located in fairly run down inner city regions. Finally, they were not suitable for families as the absence of outside space meant that it was dangerous for youngsters, who then have to stay indoors and find it difficult to integrate with their schoolmates. At the other end of the spectrum, elderly residents were marooned on the upper floors when there were power cuts and strikes. Also, some people have argued that congestion was switched from the horizontal to the vertical.
Like New Towns, many of the layouts of the flats were not prepared for full motorisation. Multi-storey car parks needed to be built but this would increase building costs. Accompanied by these problems was the existence of lift accidents and various fires. Current fire safety experts believe that 1960s high-rise buildings may contravene many health and safety laws and require regenerating.
There now appears to be a revival in high-rise living. However this revival has come up against technical issues such as noise pollution from ‘whistling’ buildings. There is also the problem of “shadowing”, which causes “right to light” issues and design issues in relation to high wind turbulence. Critics have also argued that the floor area of high-rise developments is not efficient. It may also be argued that high-rise buildings have less embodied energy and use fewer renewable materials. More money has to be spent on insulation and reducing condensation effect. The terrorist attacks of 911 have also turned some people against high-rise development.
However, there has been a significant increase in high-rise development plans. The London Plan (2004) explained that the Mayor of London “will promote the development of tall buildings where they create attractive landmarks enhancing London’s character, help to provide a coherent location for economic clusters … or act as a catalyst for regeneration and where they are also acceptable in terms of design and impact on their surroundings. … [The boroughs] should not impose unsubstantiated borough-wide height restrictions. … The compact city and intensive development does not necessarily imply high-rise buildings. ... However, tall buildings can be a very efficient way of using land and …can support the strategy of creating the highest levels of activity at locations with the greatest transport capacity.” Developers in favour of high-rise suggest that there are economies of scale in construction and procurement, efficient land use and combined heat and power technology.
Moving forwards we need to ensure that high-rise development creates sustainable living for a wider social demographic. We must also ensure that past high-rise buildings are not completely demolished but regenerated where possible, providing it is economically feasible. New designs should be sustainable and secure.