Banging the high rise drum

The Age is banging the high rise drum again.

This quote from Living the high life or just scraping by? in The Age on Saturday (who writes these clever puns, Tim Vine?) is a good example of setting up a ‘straw man’:

“With Australia’s population growth an increasingly vexed issue, ‘density’ has become a popular word with planners and developers. But are skyscrapers the way to achieve it?”

A ‘straw man’ is a logical fallacy where a decoy argument is substituted for the real issue under debate. In this case high-rise is easier to disparage than the real issue, even though (almost) no one is actually arguing that high rise is the answer. The real issue is almost entirely a debate about sprawl versus medium density housing. Sprawl is mostly about detached houses while medium density is mostly about two storey town houses and four storey apartments.

Eureka Tower, Melbourne

High rise in Melbourne is only ever likely to be a solution for a small group of (wealthy) residents who want to live in a relatively small number of highly prized or unique locations. It is far from being the main game. It puzzles me why The Age persists (see here) in portraying it as one of the main options for managing Melbourne’s expected growth.

Thus the importance of high rise in Melbourne isn’t in its potential contribution to housing supply. Rather, it brings a number of key issues associated with density into sharper focus, particularly visual prominence, potential for overshadowing, concentrated demand on infrastructure and environmental performance (there can also be social issues but fortunately no one is proposing to place families involuntarily in high rise). I’ve previously dealt with some of these issues here.

These are real and important concerns. The Age however chose to give credence in the article to the rather silly idea that residents shouldn’t have the option of living in buildings higher than about five floors.  Danish architect Jan Gehl is quoted as saying that above the fifth floor ”you’re not part of the earth anymore, because you can’t see what’s going on on the ground and the people on the ground can’t see where you are”.

For many people this may well be true, however it seems to me that it’s a matter for prospective residents to decide how high they want to live, not planners. Large numbers of people in cities like New York and the Gold Coast have decided they’re quite happy with high rise living. The planner’s interest should be limited to the wider society’s legitimate concerns, which as I said above is with issues like access to sunlight, visual impact, environmental burden and the like.

The Age article also raises a concern that high rise buildings preclude social contact. Architect Lawrence Nield is quoted as saying:

In modern cities such as Houston, Texas, one leaves home in an air-conditioned car, arrives in the parking area beneath the office, and then goes by elevator to the office floor. There is very little chance for deliberate or accidental contact. There is little urban sociability’’

This seems an odd quote because it’s about high rise offices, not residential towers, but still I know what the writer is trying to say. A lack of sociability might or might not be true of Houston but it’s not inevitable elsewhere. It’s certainly not true of Manhattan or Hong Kong where the streets around high rise towers have plenty of ‘buzz’ and opportunity for “urban sociability” (although the streets of Manhattan are now so safe it seems some opportunities for deliberate social contact have diminished considerably!).

But there’s a deeper misconception implied here – yet a common one among planners – that merely being exposed to strangers and neighbours is an important determinant of the quality and depth of human interaction. The more exposure the merrier, it seems, no matter how shallow.

The quality and depth of people’s relationships, however, is what’s important, not the number, and quality depends on mutual obligation and trust. It depends on the richness of interactions not on something as trite as how many people are seen in the street.

A good example of how really rich relationships are constructed is primary schools. Parents rely on each other to look after their children at ‘plays’, in mutual babysitting activities and to provide support in the event of minor emergencies (“I’m running late, can you look after Honeydew until I get there?”). The physical environment is a very much a bit player in this context, even banal.

I think this quote by Eureka Tower resident, architect Carl Fender (who’s firm designed the building), provides an effective counterpoint to some of the silliness in The Age article:

“I love it. And one of the things about high-rises is that they occupy very little land, so you get a lot of people on very little land and therefore you can be closer in to the facilities such as theatre, recreation, gardens and you have safety, security, view, you have amenity … I could go on and on and on”

On a quite different theme, I also want to mention this front page story in The Sunday Age yesterday,Suburban horror as dad kills children, himself”. This is a tragic event but what’s the “suburban” got to do with it? More than 90% of Melburnites live in the suburbs so the story could just as easily have said “Right-handed dad kills children, himself”. I think it perpetuates a negative stereotype of the suburbs as a place so bad that people commit unspeakable acts.

*Graphic is from the wonderful world of high rise buildings at Skyscraperpage.com


4 Comments on “Banging the high rise drum”

  1. Moss says:

    Hi Alan, Interesting comments.
    “The quality and depth of people’s relationships, however, is what’s important, not the number, and quality depends on mutual obligation and trust. It depends on the richness of interactions not on something as trite as how many people are seen in the street.”

    Actually, there is a wealth of literature that suggests the physical environment has a very large impact upon the quality of interactions (maybe you even know about it but in this case have chosen to ignore it). Such organisations as Project for Public Spaces (http://www.pps.org/) have documented this in detail.

    The idea that “…the planner’s interest should be limited to the wider society’s legitimate concerns, … with issues like access to sunlight, visual impact, environmental burden and the like” is a recipe for mediocrity. One only has to stroll around the Docklands to get the feeling that something is … missing. It may work for some people, but when has living in a city merely been about keeping the local residents happy?

    High-rise can be done well, but to ignore the street scape at the base of such buildings is a crime, as this is the public space, part of the commons.

    We can do so much better with our planning, and should be aiming to. Melbourne is a great city because it is overwhelmingly a city of great places. New developments can be designed as great places (eg Fed Square) or societally impoverished spaces (eg Docklands).

    • Alan Davies says:

      Hi Moss, thanks for your comment. I’d like to respond to your first point about the physical environment but I realise I can only really do that at length, so I’ll post something in a few days when I get some spare time, probably as a new post.

      On your second point, I don’t see that there’s any disagreement. I also believe that the design of the streetscape is a legitimate concern of the wider society. Your example of Docklands is a good one – it shows how it can go wrong and Fed Square shows how it can go right. Urban design had an important role in both these outcomes (although I’m not convinced it had the main role, especially in the case of Docklands).

      Anyway what I am trying to say in that sentence you quoted is that traditional planning issues (including streetscape design) are a legitimate concern of the wider society but whether or not people should live higher than the fifth floor isn’t.

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