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Nicholas Boys Smith: High-rise living means crime, stress, delinquency – and social breakdown. Instead, we must Create Streets

Nicholas Boys Smith is the director of Create Streets a new organisation which has been set up encourage and facilitate the replacement of multi-storey housing with real houses with gardens in real streets rather than multi-storey housing with communal space. Their report, Create Streets, is published in conjunction with Policy Exchange today.

Screen shot 2013-01-23 at 22.20.26The vast majority of tower blocks and multi-storey housing estates are the product not of the market, but of state control and the planning system. We should instead be allowing developers to create streets. Streets, houses and low-rise flats are more popular, provably better for the people who live in them (especially if they are social tenants or families), a great long term return for the landowner and, critically, achieve the same density as the post-war estates they could replace.

For twenty years, very few multi-storey estates were built in Britain. Between 1979 and 1998, only six buildings above 35 metres were built. Why? Because the government-mandated post-war experiment in high-rise living was a disaster. Summoned into existence by the 1956 Housing Subsidy Act (which offered higher public subsidies the higher the building), the 4,500 tower blocks built by 1979 quickly descended into a frightening dystopia. Communities resisted moving. The new multi-storey housing become ‘hard-to-let’. Families and households refused to move in. The Thamesmead Estate, completed in 1968, was 40 percent full by 1974. 55 per cent were refusing to move into the Broadwater Farm Estate within five years of completion. And Ernö Goldfinger’s iconic Trellick Tower (known locally as the ‘Tower of Terror’ due to the risk of rape) was ‘hard-to-let’ within months. In 1971 A Clockwork Orange used tower blocks to symbolise a savage future with the film’s teenage protagonist (and ‘ultra-violence’ practitioner) living in ‘Municipal Flatblock 18A.’

Town planners lost confidence. Subsidies to build high were reduced. In 1977, an apostle of monolithic slab-blocks, Peter Smithson, admitted that he had ‘made a big mistake’ in his monumental designs. Margaret Thatcher supported studies that showed how disastrous the high-rise experiment was proving. High-rise building stopped. Many post-war blocks were demolished. Most of the remaining ones will be destroyed over the next twenty years.

However, with a curious lack of public debate the multi-storey phoenix has risen from the cinders. The last government changed the planning rules and mandated super-high density developments which all but demanded high-rise. Ken Livingstone supported this actively. In the last decade there has therefore been a ‘resurgence’ of high-rise building. By 2004, 24 buildings above 35 metres were being built per year. In 2003, there were only 1,800 high-density flat developments in England. But by 2007. there were 5,600 with 3,800 under construction and 5,600 more with planning permission. This is a 740 percent increase.

One example is the redevelopment of the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich. An enormous estate of tower and slab-blocks with few real streets is being replaced with an enormous estate of tower and slab blocks with few real streets.  In fact, these new multi-storey flats are often worse. 1960s apartments were large. New ones are much smaller. Studies have shown that the average new-build home in the UK is 11 percent smaller than older homes. They are the smallest in Europe and getting smaller. New homes are 53 per cent bigger in Holland and 80 per cent bigger in Denmark. This is why the redevelopment of one of the worst estates (the South London Heygate) can replace 1,100 flats with 2,462. Unsurprisingly, many flat-purchasers in the new developments don’t actually want to live in them. They are investors who wish to let them. This has all the makings of a future slum, should poor demand and falling rentals ever reduce the incentive to invest in their maintenance. We are repeating the mistakes of the past.

Why are tower blocks and large slab blocks so unpopular? Why do 89 percent of Britons want to live in a house on a street, 0 percent in a tower block and only 2 percent in an apartment?
Why do so few people chose to live like this? Why do social tenants account for 21 per cent of all households with children, but 79 per cent of those living on or above the fifth floor? Why are children in social housing are sixteen times more likely to live on or above the fifth floor than children not in social housing? Is this just a naïve British desire for cottages and country roses? Far from it. People are being deeply rational. Many peer-reviewed, controlled studies show that even when you take account of social and economic status, high-rise living is correlated with social breakdown, crime and misery. This is categorically not just the case in Britain. Nor is it just due to the concentration of poorer residents in British post-war developments. The evidence is too strong and too international.

One comparison of socially identical student populations found that those in high-rise accommodation committed measurably more (petty) crime than students in a nearby low-rise hall of residence. They were also less sociable. Numerous studies corroborate this. One showed that crimes were 28 percent higher nearby and 604 percent higher in the interior public spaces of high-rises. Multi-storey housing is also correlated with bad social outcomes for residents, again even when socio-economic conditions are identical. British, Indian, US, Hong Kong, Japanese and European studies over many years have consistently found higher levels of neurosis, emotional strain, stress, depression, mental illness and marital discord among those living on higher floors. Children suffer from more stress, hyperactivity, hostility, juvenile delinquency and temper tantrums. They are less likely to learn to dress themselves or use the lavatory age-appropriately.

Streets are provably better. People prefer them. They are less anonymous and easier for families. Crime is lower. People are happier. The economic returns to long term landowners are fantastic. And the great news it that we don’t need to build towers to achieve high densities. Official reposts and academic studies show that terraced streets can match the housing densities (75 – 150 units/hectare) of most existing high-rise housing developments. That is why as Southwark did more to replace streets with high-rise dwellings post-war than any other borough the local population fell. That is why (as the LSE has found) the terraced flats and houses of Notting Hill, Lancaster Gate and Earl’s Court are the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the country. This is why, in short, we do not need to build tower-blocks to solve our housing crisis but can create streets. The National Planning Policy Framework gives communities and local government the power to chose this future. They should seize it with both hands.


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