The Trouble with High Rises

From Alternative Magazine Volume 34 Number 1 - 2008
AUTHOR: Edmund P. Fowler

Thinking outside of the box – this issue’s theme – is a metaphor that refers to mental boxes such as preconceptions and unexamined assumptions. However, most cultures have tangible physical boxes as well mental ones. These physical boxes take the form of settlements and individual buildings that influence our thoughts as well as our behaviour.

Unfortunately, our built environment is largely invisible to us because we are immersed in it every day, like the dirty air we breathe. Noticing the built environment is especially challenging in North America, where homogeneous urban smears deaden our senses. Huge subdivisions, clusters of look-alike apartment towers, and shopping malls with all the same box stores, discourage us from imagining anything else. We’re learning that this landscape carries with it enormous social, economic, and ecological costs, and it’s high time to start thinking outside of these physical boxes we’ve built for ourselves. One of these boxes is the high-rise.

At a time when we are trying to make cities more compact and therefore more environmentally friendly, residential high-rises appear to be a grand way to increase urban density. Dozens of 25-, 30-, even 50-storey buildings, most of them condominiums, are being built not just in the downtowns of cities such as Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, but also in their suburbs, far from high capacity transportation such as subways and light rail transit. Developers, the councillors who support them, and many planners describe these high-rises as central to a vibrant downtown that contributes to a city’s vitality. Even Jane Jacobs has been invoked as a fan of them, though she was not, as anyone who reads her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, will discover.

The Financial and Environmental Costs of High-Rises

It is distressing to observe this uncritical acceptance of so many tall buildings since from almost any perspective they are expensive, ecologically as well as economically – the two sorts of costs are intertwined.

The Housing Development Administration of New York City compared the costs of three-storey homes that are occupied by three families, with high-rises. Both had the identical density of 125 units per hectare, proving that moderately high densities are achievable without tall buildings. Their study found that construction costs per room were nearly double in the high-rises, and maintenance costs were up to 50 per cent higher. Similarly, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) reported in “Using Building Form and Design,” that high-rises cost more to build per square metre.

These studies offered a number of reasons for the higher building and maintenance costs. Perhaps most important, high-rises are made from steel and concrete, which embody far more energy than the wood used in smaller structures. In other words, it takes more energy to build them. Moreover, high-rises use more materials and energy per square metre of usable space. In addition, features such as sprinklers, underground parking, elevators, and complex cooling and heating systems, require construction and maintenance by experts.

Once built, high-rises use more energy per resident than any other building form, including single family homes. An EnergyAustralia initiative, the "Multi-Unit Residential Building, Energy and Peak Demand Study,” found that high-rises produced two and a half times more greenhouse gas emissions per resident than townhouses. And experts such as Martin Laplante, an Ottawa-based planning consultant, say US findings are analogous. No one is really sure why tall buildings are so inefficient, although elevators and amenities such as swimming pools and parking use extra energy. Laplante adds, “As a building ages and small leaks develop in the shell and in ducts, you need more energy to push the air around properly and to heat, cool and dehumidify it.” A CMHC study of an extensive energy retrofit on a Toronto high-rise showed that it would take 147 years for the owner to recoup the money he’d spent on the renovations.

Thus, older high-rises develop problems that can discourage maintenance. One way of dealing with this situation is to sell old buildings, as the owners of Toronto’s infamous St. James Town development did. Another is to set the building up as a condominium and pass along high maintenance costs to individual unit owners. Such “solutions,” however, don’t change the fact that, as the years go by, keeping the building in good shape becomes more and more onerous.

Furthermore, high-rises have notoriously short life spans compared to other buildings. In Housing for People, John Turner remarks that few tall buildings last more than 40 or 50 years, while smaller walkups or warehouses often remain in service for centuries – as long as no one tears them down for a new high rise! These same warehouses and other small buildings are also more easily adapted to creative new uses, whereas high-rises are not nearly as flexible. They often end up presiding over stagnant neighbourhoods. Laplante notes that, “Concrete buildings are not adaptable - you can't even move a toilet, much less convert anything.”

In “Optimizing TOD (Transit-Oriented Development) Housing Mix and Density,” Laplante reports that in neighbourhoods of medium to high densities, high-rise residents drive their cars more than residents of single family dwellings and townhouses. The reason for this finding is unclear to Laplante; however, high-rise clusters often contain no small scale land use mix that make it easy for residents to walk to the store. Since the rest of our cities are built to accommodate cars, it is quite likely the high-rise resident will drive to work, even if he or she lives on a transit line.

While providing high-rises with water, police, fire, and other municipal services is cheaper per unit and per person than providing those services to detached houses, according to studies reported in my book, Building Cities That Work, walkups and row houses are even less expensive to service than high-rises.

Architects and planners divide the floor area of buildings on a plot of land by the land area to measure what they call the floor area ratio. The architect Jack Diamond told the Canadian Urban Institute (see Ideas That Matter Volume 4, No. 1) that above a floor area ratio of 2:1, savings on public services are marginal. In fact, he said, the city of Vienna, with a citywide floor area ratio of between 2:1 and 3:1 and only a scattering of high-rises, fits 1.6 million people into a space roughly eight per cent of the size of the amalgamated City of Toronto (population 2.5 million). “Vienna,” said Diamond, “supports effective and convenient public transit,” whereas Toronto is now building either high-rise condos or low-density detached dwellings, which is an overwhelmingly expensive combination in terms of public services.

The Social Costs of High-Rises

Although few planners or builders believed her, Jane Jacobs pointed out years ago that there are many troubling social impacts of stacking dwellings up 20 and 30 stories. Many studies, summarized in my book Building Cities That Work, have shown that high-rise residents have less contact with their neighbours than people who live in three and four storey walkups or row houses. And Albert Mehrabian, in Public Places and Private Spaces, reported that British soldiers and their families placed at random in high-rises had 57 per cent more neuroses than those placed in single family homes. Furthermore, the neuroses got worse at higher floor levels.

Because there are so many anonymous and usually empty spaces such as stairwells, utility rooms and parking garages in these buildings, even sophisticated monitoring devices can't prevent assaults and robberies. In general, the higher the building, the more the crime, regardless of the residents’ income or ethnic background. Oscar Newman’s book Defensible Space demonstrated this statistically 35 years ago, for those who were not convinced by Jacobs’ “anecdotal” evidence.

Because children are captive in their physical environment, they are especially influenced by it. Newman showed that juvenile crime was highest in the tallest buildings, a reality confirmed by my own research. I also found that children in high-rises were less free to explore their neighbourhoods and more likely to be fearful of their surroundings. They had fewer friends than children in walkup apartments and townhouses that were set in physically diverse neighbourhoods. Bill Randolph, in his study Children in the Compact City, discovered that those who lived in high-rise flats were seriously restricted in their freedom, because parents thought it too dangerous to let them roam and explore. He concluded, “The net result was young children entering preschool or even school with poorly developed social and motor skills."

Outside the building, sidewalk life is weakened by high-rises. The extensive security provisions and the distance of residents from the street create barriers to their joining activity on the sidewalks, most of which is not dangerous to but supportive of casual interaction among neighbours. This interaction, Jacobs found, nurtures informal support networks that are essential to a healthy neighbourhood. My own research has shown that areas dominated by high-rise buildings have more feeble social networks and higher crime rates, no matter what their social, economic or ethnic characteristics.

Building with an Ecological Imagination

While the economic and environmental costs of the high-rise are not trivial, their social costs are arguably more significant. But both are only symptoms of a more grievous failure. By cutting their inhabitants off from the physical urban environment as well as from casual social contact, high-rises contribute to the loss of an ecological imagination, thereby severing connections between human society and the rest of the biosphere.
Fortunately, contemporary European cities and some older North American districts demonstrate that extremely compact, mixed-use neighbourhoods are possible without going any higher than four or five stories. These neighbourhoods may have less open space at ground level, but with a little imagination, greenery, cafés and shops can all be accommodated in truly exciting ways. “In Vienna,” said Jack Diamond in his address to the CUI, “the land has a greater mix of uses and there is a high level of social integration. This urban form also supports small-scale retail enterprises.” Thus, the neighbourhoods are economically as well as socially vibrant. As I have tried to show, this vibrancy meshes with ecological health, a fact that readers of this journal already know. This is the essence of the ecological imagination.

A city of high-rises, which to us seems so modern, was actually first imagined and sketched by the architect and city planner. Le Corbusier back in the early 1920s. One of his sketches shows a wall of 50-storey buildings, but flying across their facades is a tiny biplane. This image reminds us that, like the biplane, high-rises are quaintly out-of-date. It’s time for us to experiment with imaginative forms of development that are socially, economically and ecologically more responsible than an architect’s grandiose fantasies from long ago.