Apr 9, 2014

Are apartment towers ruining our city centres?

They're frequently criticised, but high-rise apartments in the city centre save on infrastructure costs, improve sustainability, and help keep housing costs down across the rest of the metro area

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The triumph of the city centre; the six municipalities in Victoria with the largest proportional increase in population, 2012-2013. Chart shows absolute increase. (source data: ABS)

A new ABS statistical publication released this week says Australia’s capital cities are really packing them in. It shows population in capital cities grew three times faster over the last year than in the rest of Australia. (1)

What’s especially interesting is that the fastest growth in the country wasn’t in the outer suburbs of Perth or South East Qld but in the very centre of Australia’s second largest city. The number of residents in the diminutive City of Melbourne (36.2 sq km) increased 10.1% over 2012-13, from 105,402 to 116,431. (2)

Growth in some parts of the municipality was phenomenal. The number of people living in the CBD grew by 22.7% in the course of the year and the population of both Docklands and Southbank increased by 15%.

The pattern appears to be continuing. The number of approvals for multi-unit developments over three storeys in Victoria for the three months to February 2014 was 33% higher than it was in the same period last year

Not surprisingly, RMIT planning academic Michael Buxton voiced his familiar complaints in the media about the number of high-rise residential towers already built or planned in the city centre to accommodate the demand for city centre living.

According to The Guardian, Professor Buxton claims Melbourne is becoming similar to a high-rise Asian city and is losing its attractiveness as a result. He’s not the only one to complain that Melbourne is becoming like Hong Kong; see this article by Fairfax journalist Shane Green and this one by ABC producer Shane Ziffer.

Apart from the inscrutable “Asian” references, the usual concerns raised by critics are that high-rise towers dominate the skyline, cast shadows, generate winds at ground level, are too small, and in effect are “vertical sprawl”.

I think there are some important points to bear in mind in the debate about high-rise residential towers in the centre of capital cities like Melbourne:

  • They’re a response to demand. If the supply were constrained it would increase prices and exclude many of those who want to live in the centre, starting with those who have the least financial resources.
  • Part of the reason for the high demand in and around the CBD is that alternative housing options in most of the inner city and middle suburbs are limited by planning rules that constrain supply and raise prices.
  • Higher housing supply in the city centre has a knock-on effect; it helps to lower housing prices elsewhere in the metropolitan area by absorbing some of the excess demand.
  • City centre living scores highly on sustainability. Residents live in small, well-insulated apartments and, although they use electricity for elevators, they use sustainable ways of travelling.
  • Residents save public spending on big-ticket infrastructure, especially on transport. They are more likely to walk, cycle or travel on trains against the peak than residents of other locations.
  • The reference to Asian cities misses the mark. Unlike Hong Kong, only a tiny part of Melbourne is slated for high-rise towers. The vast majority of the apartments are occupied by singles and couples; not by families as they are in Hong Kong.

That’s not to say there aren’t the inevitable downsides. High-rise apartments are certainly “tiny” by the standards of suburban detached houses and some have bedrooms without windows (they use “borrowed light”).

But these are primarily matters for the buyers and renters who freely choose to live in them and who in most cases can’t afford anything bigger in such a sought-after location. These are not public housing tenants who have limited choice about where they live.

It’s true towers cast shadows and can generate unpleasant wind effects at times. These problems can and should be mitigated by design to some extent. But what’s most relevant is this is the CBD, not the suburbs.

The CBD has traditionally had tall towers to enable firms to reap agglomeration economies and permit mass transit to move huge numbers of workers in a small time window. The benefits of high density inevitably come with some compromises.

Some argue that instead of towers, Melbourne could achieve the same population density in the city centre by emulating the low rise built-form of historic Paris. It certainly sounds attractive, but this romantic notion overlooks the narrow streets and limited open space in Paris.

It also ignores the complexities of history, in particular the small size, disparate ownerships, different planning controls, historic protections, and existing values of land parcels in the city centre. CBDs are not greenfields or brownfields sites.

And back to the spectre of “Asian” cities for a moment, I note that his week Hong Kong topped the world rankings of the Arthur D Little Urban Mobility Index 2.0. Maybe we can learn something from Hong Kong?

There are design issues with some of the recent towers that need to be addressed, but in terms of the big picture of housing supply, the Government has got this aspect of it right. Whether or not its policies to boost supply in established suburbs make as much sense is less certain (see Will “protecting the suburbs” safeguard affordability?).


  1. The municipality with the next largest increase, the City of Wyndham on Melbourne’s western fringe, has an area of 541.6 sq km.
  2. The ABS’s media release emphasises the dramatic growth rates of the capital cities e.g. “Capital cities packed in more than three times as many new residents as the rest of Australia in the year to June 2013”. However it’s notable that the share of the national population in capital cities has increased very slowly: it was 65% in 1973 and 66% in 2013. Not really very dramatic; be wary of relying solely on percentage increases.
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38 thoughts on “Are apartment towers ruining our city centres?

  1. Smith John

    Why reinvent the wheel? I respectfully submit that the ideal form of medium density (not Hong Kong high density) housing is the 2-3 storey Victorian terrace (with a little tweaking for modern standards of dwelling size, solar access, sound insulation etc).

    It should easily achieve 6,000 per square kilometre, if density is your goal.[1] Everyone still has their own ground level front door and their own bit of dirt to sit under their own tree, with the psychological benefits that people rightly point out. The only downside is that, compared with apartments, a little more space is used for multiple staircases. That’s a price worth paying.

    I am constantly amazed that the pre-1900 inner suburbs of the capital cities, once gentrified, are so attractive and highly sought after; yet hardly anyone tries to recreate that proven success in new developments.

    [1] Back of envelope calculation: take a 8x30m lot. Put a 8x10m two storey (three if you wish) terrace on it. Dwelling size 160 square metres (240 if you wish). Plenty of private open space in the back yard. Theoretical gross yield 4,000 dwellings per square kilometre, at say average 3 people per dwelling (guess) = 12,000 per kilometre. Allow 50 per cent of the total land (maybe that is a little too low?) for the public realm outside the property boundary, takes this down to 6,000 per square kilometre. Parking is at the kerbside and/or in communal sheds at the back. There might even be room for a private parking space on the lot, with the dimensions I am suggesting.

  2. michael r james

    But so what? I suppose for a momentary period of madness (60s, 70s) Paris also got caught up in the (false) concept that you can achieve higher density (and “better” utilize that precious land inside the Peripherique) by going up, to 31 floors in the case of the 13th arrondissement. Or ≈60 floors in the Tour Montparnasse office experiment. But that policy has been abandoned for a long time now because the results are there for all to see/experience. (And to inject a bit more of my arrogance here, is there is a single commenter here who has actual experience of both?) In the previous two decades the ZACs (redevelopment zones that must conform to particular masterplan design constraints) have all reverted to the Haussmannian standard; take a look at the more recent (and final) part of the 13th arrondissement, ie. the easterly part along the river (it used to be light industrial, vast railway yards and horse abbatoirs etc).

    For example around the Bibliotheque Nationale Mitterand. Or the multiple large ZACs in Boulogne-Billancourt (outside “Paris” but just as close as many of the outer arrondissements and with two Metro lines) which again is carefully converting the vast old industrial zones of the Renault factories and associated support industries to residential and “smart” industries (a international university zone with Stanford & NYU already committed to a campus, etc). This area is quite a good comparison with Fisherman’s Bend in being previous centre of the auto-industry (FB has Toyota & GMH plants spread over vast landholdings) but still very convenient to the city.

    The point being of course that (groan, do I have to write another 1500 hundred words on it?) high density≠hi-rise. So the alternative, or even call it “compromise” between “spaced-out hi-rise” and the Haussmannian option, is more compact built environment; yes by and large, narrower streets, because the 8-floor limit has been shown not to create problems. But even more than that, to address your point: several fold more apartments can be built on this model, so how is it less financially viable?

    As to cost, again, you are falling into the developer’s (and AD’s) trap of not looking beyond your nose. (But let me give praise to Lend Lease, even if it has taken Australia ten years after Austria developed the CLT method, see below.) And I remain quite unconvinced about the real-world cost-differences; instead of building 500 apartments on a 1,000 m2 site, one developer/builder builds more over a bigger site (but note, all could be served by the same cranes etc). In fact, it is interesting that the LendLease Forte building …
    [is made of structural engineered timber called cross-laminated timber (CLT) and allows the building to be built 30 per cent faster, safer and with higher precision than its material counterparts.
    Using CLT offers better thermal performance and requires less energy to heat and cool which means reduced energy and water costs which averages savings of $300 per year or up to 25 per cent less than a typical code-compliant apartment,” Mr Patterson said.]

    Because the components are made off-site, the costs are further reduced (a fraction of concrete & steel; further savings in that foundations don’t need to be as huge). I don’t think LendLease are doing this “experiment” out of design considerations, they are doing it because the price of concrete and steel has skyrocketed in the past ten years. And their own research indicates:
    [Research around preferences for multistorey residential living suggest people were most comfortable with apartments in six to eight-storey developments, rather than taller projects.]

    It is largely irrelevant whether the land is private or public. It is in the power of the government to impose design constraints. Indeed, it may be anathema in Australia, but they have a moral obligation to do this on behalf of their constituents, current and future, instead of worrying about the developers and land speculators. Especially since any development relies so heavily on the public input such as all the usual infrastructure and the “proposed” light-rail for FB etc. If one or more developers don’t like the plan, then they can just piss off and (be forced if necessary) to pass the development opportunity to another company that will.

    And do you think that developers and builders don’t thrive in France (or Austria)? It is a kind of naive (or dishonest?) idea of right-wing ideologues (like Sloan etal) that awful “socialist” countries like France don’t provide the environment for thriving private companies. Check out Bouygues S.A, with 130,000 employees in 80 countries, generating €32.7 billion in revenue. (I could also note that the Brits rely on French companies for their current big projects such as HS2, nuclear power and CrossRail and many others.)

  3. Alan Davies

    Waffler #35:

    Yes, almost all of Fishermans Bend is in private ownership. Although looking at the cadastre, while there might be more small lots, the combined area of the still numerous large lots dwarfs the summed area of small ones.

  4. Waffler

    AD #34: Actually, it isn’t about Fishermans Bend – that is nearly entirely in private ownership (the Gov’t just had to buy a school site in Ferrars Street according to the Hun on 1/4/14). While it has some larger parcels, many more are quite small.

    That said, I agree with you – Paris may seem idyllic when visiting but I am not sure you could do it well from scratch in Melbourne (or maybe even in Paris?).

    And mrj #27: The extra costs of your Haussmannian ideal are pretty clear.
    * Three storeys = “stick & brick” construction by home builders and their subbies, cheap foundations, no lifts, no cranes, simple OH&S.
    * Five storeys = lifts, tower cranes, CFMEU, expensive foundations, major design & engineering costs, complex OH&S
    * 25 Storeys = as above, but amortised over more units.

    There is no doubt we could adopt any set of design constraints, including maximum height limits of 5 or whatever storeys. There is a cost to any solution however – either in land take, housing costs, lifestyles, vitality, aesthetics, freedom of choice, flexibility, etc.

    And, as we rely on private development, if you make development too hard/unprofitable it just won’t happen – until a shortage of supply makes housing prices rise to the level that it again becomes profitable (a la Sydney!). And some think we currently have an affordability crisis!

  5. Alan Davies

    michael r james #32, #33:

    Your first post is just pros and cons; nothing much about how to actually put The Paris Option into practise on Melbourne’s multitude of small, privately owned land parcels. So no advance there.

    No, you haven’t given a “real world” solution in your second post; apart from throwing your hands up about Docklands again and again (that horse bolted some time ago, keep up!), you just keep talking about all this aspirational stuff without any relevant (i.e. contemporary Australia) advice on how it might happen. Or any apparent understanding or appreciation of the real-life constraints that might prevent it happening.

    It looks like all you’re really saying is we can have The Paris Option provided we find more Docklands-type projects i.e. very large areas with relatively low value existing uses and large parcels that’re easy to assemble and consolidate (and in the case of Docklands were largely in public ownership).

    So when you boil it down all your verbiage is, at best, only about Fishermans Bend. You’ve got nothing to contribute on the issue of all those high-rise towers already built, under construction, approved or proposed for the numerous small and privately owned sites around Melbourne’s CBD and Forrest Hill. This is what’s happening in Melbourne now: Matthew Guy approves five new residential towers for Melbourne CBD.

    l’m more than happy to give you the last word.

  6. michael r james

    [But the inconvenient fact is this really is real life. Anyone can rabbit on forever about their ideal notion, but until you show how The Paris Option can be made to work in the CBD of a city like Melbourne you’re just pissing in the wind]

    That is both lazy and dishonest, and I don’t know why you keep resorting to it. I have clearly given what is a very real-world solution for Melbourne (and Brisbane). Docklands redevelopment planning long preceded (and should have pre-empted) the frenzy of building those hideous (inside and out) hi-rise apartments in the CBD. There are lots of brownfield sites to plan for it even now (esp. with GM leaving Fisherman’s Bend, freeing another ≈100 hectares). Just in the last post (summary of longer posts):

    [–because there are and have been better options in the immediately-adjoining old industrial areas fringing the CBD (Docklands & Fishermans Bend).]

    Why do you relentlessly ignore this?
    My big problem with what you write is your unnecessary fatalism about what has happened and is happening, and thus what will happen. Without refuting a single of my arguments for the Paris Option, you apparently believe the current Australian planning is unstoppable. But it seems everything is still to play for in Fishermans Bend (if Docklands is beyond redemption?). It seems they might have a better plan than for Docklands (there’s a lot of talk about high-density, just have to hope it doesn’t translate into a bunch of spaced-out hi-rise). I really hope that some urban planners and consultants might make the case broadly in line with my case. For example I see there is one big major park in the current plan–which is not even very convenient; I suspect it is squeezed into its triangular space at the far edge, part under the Westgate bridge approaches because it is sub-optimal for those hi-rise apartments they want to build. Somehow, a big splotch of green on these kinds of plans seems to appeal to planners, developers (especially if it is “free” and fulfills their obligations in one fell swoop), politicians and maybe even the poorly-informed public. I have made the case that that is the wrong approach.

    There is nothing dreamy about this. It is starting the long road of public consultation and politiking etc right now. As the original Melbourne Urbanist are you going to ignore it until it is a (potentially horrible) reality? Then write an article like this one, saying people like me are mere impotent dreamers?

  7. michael r james

    OK, even I will admit that last one was a doozy (1800 words).
    Here is a shot at an executive summary (naturally it has to be the claims devoid of evidence).

    Hi-Rise residential towers in Melbourne CBD are bad:

    –architecturally poor (developer driven)
    –poor quality housing (vertical sprawl)
    –degrades the local environment (overshadowing; wind tunnel effects; poor quality light + air for the apartments themselves)
    –squeezes out office + business (which produce buildings of better architectural merit)
    –does not achieve the benefits of density anything comparable to the “Paris Option” (and the Barcelona-Eixample option, and the NYC-Upper West Side option, and the inner Madrid option, the old Berlin option etc etc)
    –thus because of never achieving (in Oz context) the density of the Paris Option they fail the “response to demand” argument (and all those dependent on this argument that I have comprehensively disproven with real-world cases).
    –because there are and have been better options in the immediately-adjoining old industrial areas fringing the CBD (Docklands & Fishermans Bend).

    Open Space in cities:
    –small is better than very large (London-St James’s & Paris-Luxembourg & NYC-Washington Sq versus Hyde Park and Central Park or Bois de Boulogne, though the Paris mega-park 2.5x Central Park, is not occupying central Paris real estate)
    –large open spaces are both poorly used and often people-unfriendly (windy like Docklands, fewer amenities like cafes etc)
    –very large parks will be less accessible to fewer people (and therefore less used and lower amenity) than the same area distributed over many more, smaller parks and squares.
    –too much wide open spaces kills the intimacy, vibrancy & ambience of the aforesaid small parks & squares;
    –very large parks are counter-productive to producing high density and thus counter to all the infrastructure & transport efficiencies (walkability etc).

    Avenue Foch plan:
    –does not actually create more open space
    –it takes existing space and makes it more people friendly by excluding cars
    –it would add ≈40-50% extra parkland to existing parkland (currently on sides of Av Foch) but greatly increase its amenity value.

  8. Alan Davies

    michael r james #30:

    Sorry, got to the 3rd para and collapsed with fatigue!

    Yes, I do prefer your “vision”, i.e. The Paris Option, to what is happening in real life, who wouldn’t? But the inconvenient fact is this really is real life. Anyone can rabbit on forever about their ideal notion, but until you show how The Paris Option can be made to work in the CBD of a city like Melbourne you’re just pissing in the wind. It’s not enough that it’s a better model – you’ve got to show how it can be implemented in the subject context.

    I get that the world would be a better place without sin, but I’d rather hear about how we can reach a comfortable accommodation with sinners, than constantly be told how much better it would be if we could turn every last one of them into angels. Sure it would, but it’s not helful.

  9. michael r james

    4,000 word. You should be so lucky:-)
    Well, you’ll have to identify those straw men because I don’t see any other than your own! I just reread your piece and thought to address each of your bullet points–BUT, turns out that is exactly, precisely what I did in my first (1500 word) post. I can’t see a single straw man there, so really that is a disreputable thing to claim.

    I would point out that your reply doesn’t refute any of my evidence-based, data-rich exposition. Except to dismiss everything by labelling it as “opinion” which I would dispute. In my world there is a big difference between an opinion (≈hypothesis) and a conclusion. (Aidan too, should pay attention.)

    And then saying that undefined “others” might have different opinions. I have no problem with anyone having a contrary opinion (obviously I love it because I am an argumentative s.o.b.) but you’ve not presented any, not on a single point. In fact it seems you are in furious agreement. Can you really find anyone (developers and financially-interested parties excluded) who likes Docklands and likes the current crop of hi-rise apartments in Melbourne. One of your main, if not your sole, econometric arguments for them is that they allow more people to live in the most convenient locations (& resulting efficiencies re infrastructure & transport etc). I think even you agree (de facto) that I have comprehensively demolished that argument–not with opinion but with irrefutable numbers.

    My main weakness in the various arguments is that it is my “opinion” that most Australians would actually prefer “my” vision for development of CBDs and dense mixed-residential districts. Unfortunately too many Australians don’t have the relevant experience though it seems that is changing (though with Melbourne’s heritage it is a reversion–interrupted by a short destructive period of developer frenzy in the current era.)

    Even Aidan’s “arguments”, such as they are, are misguided. “Thinking is always better than lack of thought.” That is a pedant’s distortion of what I meant; what I was talking about was that in my field (but it should apply in all fields, even if almost impossible in economics) we follow up our “thinking” by testing it against the real world (experiment or observation etc). Aidan freely admits he hasn’t done that, and his remark about preferring sprawl is a real strawman because it is truly irrelevant to this discussion. Many may be like him but increasingly in Australia (and finally in the US) increasing numbers have had it with that particular deal. But that was not the point of AD’s article or my posts. Our discussion here is about the form of “dense” inner-city living. I have made the case that hi-rise residential, and especially destroying existing heritage fabric for it, is not the best answer and I believe my support of that conclusion is rock solid.

    I really don’t understand your position. You seem to agree with all my substantive points but then inexplicable return to, it seems, fatalistic acceptance of the status quo. Why? Because nothing is to be done? Or the worst (non-) argument of all: Melbourne isn’t Paris? (For most of its existence, Melbourne owes more to Paris than any other model I can think of, including its lanes which are a luckily retained version of Walter Benjamin’s Paris arcades. That and its rational (modern) grid with wide avenues etc is not based on London. (If you’re thinking NYC, then guess what 19th century NYC was modelled on?) By refusing to accept the validity of arguments for alternative models (even while accepting their advantages for those other cities) is just saying that There Is No Alternative. Maggie T’s frequent, ideological, dogmatic and wrong, lament.

    You say that not once do I address “the key obstacle to pursuing what I’ll call The Paris Option.” Au contraire. I think it is crystal clear that I don’t favour building hi-rise residential buildings within the existing CBD, and instead there have been, and remain, ample opportunities for the Paris Option on the immediate fringe of the CBD. As I have said many times I am not against hi-rise per se, so in fact what developmental opportunities within the CBD would be available for office buildings; in fact as I think you know, allowing those miserable, drab residential buildings is restricting office expansion (which is often of a much higher architectural merit). So my argument–and yours does not–supports best use of those land parcels! (Seriously, tell me otherwise.)

    Take Docklands and the extension over the river Fisherman’s Bend, a much bigger area and a much bigger opportunity to get it right. One can only hope the planners and politicians might have learned a few things from Docklands, but what about Alan Davies? Does he believe it should be developed like Docklands with hi-rise housing, more giant open-spaces that actually reduce amenity? In fact a problem I haven’t discussed (because it wasn’t in your article) is that both Docklands and FB have way too much very low-rise that is for the very wealthy: two or at most three storey townhouses right on the river or old docks. No one, least of all a developer or an economist, can convince me that that is good for the city or the site; it is a terrible abuse of precious limited land resources. The developer (and maybe the economist–even after all my data in my first post, AD?) will continue to argue black-is-white by saying this mix of housing for a few ultra-rich and with hi-rise for the rest is the most efficient use of the land. NO, IT IS NOT. (Even on the richest avenues in Paris such as Avenue Foch or Avenue Montaigne where the ultra-rich get by in their haute-Haussmannian buildings.) And Alan Davies should be making this clear in his blog. Yet, you never do and that is the main provocation for my own polemic in response.

    On your final sentence, I would willingly respond but am having genuine trouble finding your “propositions”! But let’s take your indirect point about open space or its lack in Paris. I think that the linked article is very superficial but ok here goes. In fact I really do think I addressed it in my first post. Paris has some of the nicest parks in any city I have experienced. New Yorkers* and maybe even Londoners may lament the absence of something like Central Park, Hyde Park or Regent’s Park in the centre of Paris but seriously, they are wrong for all the reasons I gave and won’t repeat here. My fave park in London is the small St James Park. In Paris, for most people including me, its Jardin du Luxembourg (quite a bit bigger than St James’s but nothing like Hyde etc). And for those who want huge vistas of greenery etc there is the Tuleries + Champs Elysees (the parkland on both sides & around the Grand & Petit Palais), or Champs de Mars (at Eiffel Tower) or Esplanade des Invalides; without even mentioning the two giant Bois (both are formally, legally part of Paris intra-muros) which are indeed heavily used on weekends but deserted weekdays except, ahem, for a certain human trade (not a very econometrically efficient use of scarce land which is why they are appropriate on the very edge of Paris).

    Curiously the argument about Avenue Foch is not what you imply. It is already flanked by green strips (parks!) wider than the street itself, on both sides–forming a glorious avenue linking Arc de Triomphe to Bois de Boulogne. The total width (building facade to facade) is actually wider than that of the Champs Elysees, and is why it is one of the ritziest streets with the grandest apartments in the ritziest (slightly wrong word, this is old-money territory) arrondissements (16th) in Paris. Those grand residents should welcome the plan because currently it really is a busy highway (links the two hyper-busy traffic points of Arc de Triomphe and the Peripherique at Porte Dauphine; of course the rich often object to developments for “the people” because it might draw riffraff into their exclusive enclave.

    The Delanoë plan is to exploit that existing green avenue and improve it by getting rid of the cars. It is hard to see exactly how (without the extreme option of a road tunnel under the whole thing) because the side streets are both too indirect & narrow, and that definitely would degrade the amenity of those areas worse than it does in the big open space of Av. Foch. (As I wrote above, this is a major outlet for the Peripherique and closing it or choking it, will surely just displace those cars somewhere else. I might be wrong. Traffic behaviour is a very curious beast. Temporary closure of major roads in LA recently has not led to the congestion apocalypse (“carmaggedon”) some were predicting, indeed it led to strange calm!) Incidentally the article is already out of date as socialist Delanoë-protege Anne Hidalgo won the mayoral race two weekend back, and she is a big supporter of the scheme.

    That will be an interesting story to follow but it is not at all what you are talking about. (eg. it will not create more open space but utilize the existing wide space more for people than cars.) And for example, it may not be a good model for Docklands or FB because of the wind factor. Despite assumed “popular” opinion about those large open spaces, (here is another opinion) once exposed to these alternatives most people–especially those who might live there–would choose the option of more & smaller parks & squares in a dense living environment. Exactly the point I made in previous posts.

    And a final if obvious point. People pining for “wide open spaces” need to be careful what they wish for. As Docklands demonstrates, and Parisians surely understand, the more such space within the urban fabric and the less it will support the very ambience and vitality that people love about inner Paris.
    *more on parks: of course the stock response of many New Yorkers (and people who boast they know NYC) may be to sing the praises of Central Park (even if they barely bother to trek all the way up there very often, and make sure they are well clear of it before sunset…) but actually you will find many will instead talk fondly of Washington Square (its biggest defender Jane Jacobs), Union Square, Tompkins Square and other smaller parks around the city, of which there are far too few (compared to Paris or London). Parisians will nominate the medium sized parks of Luxembourg, Parc Monceau, Montsouris, Jardin des Plantes, Buttes Chaumont; and spaces that function as parks: the three big cemeteries of Pere Lachaise, Montparnasse & Montmarte; and then the even smaller squares and spaces that are delightful like Place des Voges, Palais Royale and the innumerable pocket parks around churches and monuments etc.
    Another long post, but I really don’t see any compelling reason to apologize for it.

  10. Alan Davies

    michael r james #3, 14, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27…:

    OK Michael, I’ve made the effort to read through your extensive comments (the article is 946 words; to date, your comments on it come to over 4,000 words!).

    You’ve devoted a lot of energy to straw men. Neither I nor anyone else here as far as I can tell is arguing:

    Against the proposition that high densities can indeed be achieved without towers. That’s not questioned given the right circumstances, as the examples of Manhattan and Paris show.

    That Docklands is a good example of how high density should be handled. It’s not, it’s awful. It can be done a lot better (see Is Docklands a dog?).

    Against the idea that Paris is wonderful etc etc. I think it’s safe to say virtually everyone who reads this blog loves it, me included.

    That high-rise towers lack the charm of period apartments and some show lamentable design sophistication. That’s explicitly acknowledged in the article.

    It’s interesting to know your various personal likes and dislikes, but public policy isn’t about personal idiosyncrasies. It’s got to take account of everyone; and as it happens there’s lots of diversity in taste and views. I daresay many Australians have very different preferences to yours and would see no justification for privileging yours over theirs.

    Now you might think Paris has plenty of open space, but many don’t including some who live there. You might love the narrow streets (as do I) but that doesn’t mean they’d be accepted by everyone else, especially in a new build in the centre of an Australian city. New builds offer residents alternatives and they don’t come with the charm, the cultural significance, or the constraints, of history.

    The most notable thing though is that in all those words you haven’t once addressed the key obstacle to pursuing what I’ll call The Paris Option. As I said in the article, it’s that proponents ignore:

    the complexities of history, in particular the small size, disparate ownerships, different planning controls, historic protections, and existing values of land parcels in the city centre.

    We haven’t inherited the built form the Parisians fortuitously did (we never even had it) and for the most part what places like Melbourne have available now for redevelopment in the city centre isn’t in public ownership. As is the case in Manhattan many redevelopment parcels are small.

    No doubt you’ll reply, but please respond to my propositions; don’t bloviate about straw men.

  11. Aidan Stanger

    michael r james #19

    Thinking is always better than lack of thought. I haven’t lived in either situation, and neither appeals to me (though if I’d stayed in London longer I might have moved into a highrise because that’s what was available at a reasonable cost). I prefer to live in the sprawl (within walking distance of a train station) but I don’t expect everyone to share my preferences whereas you seem to overestimate the importance of your own experiences.

    IMO it is silly to use glass curtain walls for residential highrises. But I think the main reason highrises don’t hold their value so well is because they occupy less land. The value of land (which tends to rise faster than everything else) makes up a lower proportion of the total cost. If land were taxed at a higher rate, highrises would hold their value better.

  12. michael r james

    @26 Waffler at 9:13 pm

    “engineered wooden buildings to 5-7 storeys”

    Yes, I seem to recall I wrote about it a few years back. There was such a building in San Francisco going up, though I think it was lower, maybe 4-5 floors?
    Actually my own building is almost like that: a woolstore of nominally 4 floors but actually more equivalent to about 6 regular floors because of the huge floor heights (especially mine, the top floor is up to 7.5 m, allows a full-height mezzanine). While the external walls are brick the internal structural pillars are timber (Oregon I believe, mostly because it is resistant to our termites? woolstore built in 1911).

    Found it in my files: They achieve the perfect Haussmannian height by “a five-story woodframe building over two stories of concrete, a common construction type for Seattle, but not San Francisco.”
    Of course there are additional reasons for constructing like this on the US West Coast.

    Also, about that affordability thing. I reckon it is developer b.s. Low buildings are not built by developers per se but by builders. Developers just always want to go higher so they always claim lower is not economic. I admit I don’t know (another topic for research !) but at first glance I always thought that up to Haussmannian height should be cheaper because it can be done without a expensive kangaroo crane. And of course if it became a de facto standard …

  13. Waffler

    A couple of thoughts on this extensively commented article:

    As I understand it, construction costs (pick your pet excuse, but it is still fact) building regs/unions/land/planning requirements/taxes/OH&S/etc. in Melbourne make 5-7 storey buildings about the most expensive ones to build. Hence three or twenty three storeys. This is especially the case in places like Docklands and Southbank where ground conditions require deep and expensive foundations as soon as you get above a couple of storeys.

    One hope is a relatively recent trend in North America that is starting to emerge here for engineered wooden buildings to 5-7 storeys – Michael’s sweet spot?? These are not only supposedly cheaper, but are also claimed to be more environmentally sound, especially in embedded energy and sequestered CO terms. Watch this space (e.g. http://www.forteliving.com.au/).

    The issue of activated streets has been raised. Developers and their advisors seem to think this means ground floor shops. I can’t see what’s wrong with ground floor apartments. Having lived in a terrace house fronting right onto the street, this approach provides great access and adds a level of passive surveillance that allows the entire ground level to be activated.

    Finally, I think commentators are somewhat correct when they call towers “vertical sprawl”. However, this is not because they have lots of dwellings, but because they generally have nothing else. In fact, they are more correctly vertical dormitories. We need to make sure buildings include the urban facilities and features we need. Utilising the lower floors for schools, libraries, civic spaces, public gyms, passive spaces and the like (as well as shops) will not only better service the needs of a growing population, but also further activate these important new residential suburbs – and probaly save heaps compared with finding space for stand alone facilites.

  14. melburnite

    Hmmm are high-rise apartment towers ruining the CBD ? Well, some are interesting, some are just stacked glass and concrete floor plates, but I think there is generally a high enough design quality going on (externally at least). Also interesting is that many are extremely tall and thin, a new urban type, and one that makes its own interest.

    The only problems I see include the ones Alan has pointed out – the lack of podiums and lack of separation between them. There are guidelines covering these, but the Ministry for Planning has been pointedly ignoring them for at least 10 years. With regard to podiums, wind effects and casting shadows, I think there are great problems here that are yet to become obvious; with about a dozen towers around the Vic Market area, the east west streets may get quite gloomy, and Im especially worried for Elizabeth Street, currently so sunny most of the time, and thronged with people – it may be sunny only at lunchtime in the near future. And it may develop into a wind tunnel. Sticking to the rules would still have allowed plenty of towers, without downgrading the street level urban environment for everyone else.

    The other big problem has been flagged in the media, and discussed in this article by Kate Shaw http://theconversation.com/housing-blame-game-here-to-stay-in-world-of-infinite-demand-24716 – that it seems that a large proportion of the flats may in fact be empty ! And that instead of leading to a leveling out of prices, they feed an insatiable market and will neither house anyone, nor affect prices. If this is indeed true (and no-one seems to know) then we may have degraded some of our CBD in the name of parking overseas investments, with no benefit to Melbourne’s housing market. I hope that isnt the case.

  15. michael r james

    #20 @IkaInk at 4:49 pm

    Hah yes, my weakness. And victim of the curse of the modern age, short attention spans (and I know you’re not even genY 🙂

    I suppose I could give an “executive summary” and in fact for my first rant the take-home message was there in bold:

    high density≠hi-rise

    But it is the scientist and debater in me that forces me to really, really nail the point(s). With data and discussion of that data and what it implies. That way I find whether my conclusion really stands up. (It does.) Otherwise it is just empty opinion & bloviating.
    As AD repeats, everyone is familiar with the acclaimed greatness of Paris, but few properly explain it, or the surprising stats of that kind of urban living. Or–more importantly–it has direct lessons for the modern world. (I have another 250 words on Upper West Side NYC, and another 250 words on Barcelona’s Eixample, both of which are very similar, so I did edit!)

  16. michael r james

    OK, not “oops” but some weird defect in processing of this, because it happened again (the Crikey commenting software substituted the link to this (ie ADs) article! though it didn’t do it to Walkable City above; weird.)

    Here is the link to Herzog + de Meuron’s futuristic hi-rise Le Projet Triangle

  17. michael r james

    Oops, just discovered in my first post (#3) I gave the wrong link to Herzog + de Meuron’s futuristic hi-rise Le Projet Triangle

  18. michael r james

    #18 Burke John at 3:54 pm

    Yes, excuse me. Tx for the reference.
    I was exploiting your statement to pursue my usual obsessions!
    As a flaneur I pay homage to all those Situationists, Surrealists, Psycho-geographers and sundry obsessive walker-philosophers from the 19th to the 20th century. Having said that I am not sure they actually influenced urban planning even in Paris, London or Copenhagen*, at least when it mattered. Somehow I don’t think Baron Haussmann was a flaneur or necessarily even wanted to encourage it. One could perhaps argue that they helped resistance in the modern era to wholesale destruction of the old inner city. More likely their legacy is coming to the fore more recently as we the masses and planners, (who knows, maybe one day economists?) see the benefits of a Walkable City.

    *Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen was clearly already very amenable to his obsessive walking, and has luckily retained, even improved upon those characteristics that make it one of the better cities. In addition to that Balzac quotation from an earlier rant, I like Kierkegaard’s which was way ahead of its time:

    [Above all, do not lose your desire to walk; every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away form every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away form it.]

  19. IkaInk

    @Michael – You make many good points, but damn it man it man you need to edit! It took about twenty minutes to read your comments. I’m not trying to pick a fight, I just like to read what you have to say and in most instances I simply don’t have the time.

  20. michael r james

    #15 Aidan Stanger at 3:39 pm |
    But I can’t think of any great disadvantage of high rise compared to what they have in Paris.

    “Thinking”, as I have tried to explain, isn’t really up to the job. You haven’t lived in both situations have you?

    I lived for a while in a typical hi-rise glass curtain-wall 31 storey building in Paris-13; huge views including of course the Tour Eiffel, which one promptly ignored. Not absolutely terrible but never would I choose to live, or buy, such an apartment. And since then this exact apartment (owned by a friend) has lost value compared to equivalent sized, located Haussmannian building (even though notionally the latter needs more upkeep). There is no contest.

  21. Burke John

    Michael James: Ivan Illich and Andre Gorz living in Paris in the 70s were amongst the earliest philosophers to examine the hegemony of the car over modern life, so it hasn’t been a total hegemony of the car in France as in many and particularly Anglo ones. There have been voices.

    I like Gorz’s http://www.bikereader.com/contributors/misc/gorz.html

  22. michael r james

    On the issue of hi-rise versus low-rise, naturally I have pretty strong opinions. Actually I’m not totally against hi-rise but the main problem, especially though not exclusively, in the Anglophone world is that it is all determined by developers. Now ask yourself, if you want something designed for the long-term benefit of actual people, would you put all planning decisions in the hands of developers? Of course, in turn that means a one-sided version of economic-rationalism. One that only favours their profits. The fanciful notion of some economists is that the “market” will ensure these greedy swine will build what the market wants but we all know that is complete tripe. Especially when our politicians are totally at the developers behest. The most egregious example is James Packer’s combined apartments + casino at Barangaroo; it was waived thru all planning processes at the last moment by the Premier! Seriously, all those who think this is the way to build cities for people put up their hand (I am tempted to add ….right up their fundaments …).

    As to specifics of why hi-rise apartments are awful, it is true that it is not simple to precisely specify. For me (and I suspect most people who don’t quite realize it) the low ceilings are a big part of it. There is a reason why the Real Estate ads for places in Sydney and Melbourne talk about “high ceilings” for the older classier buildings. Today the developers in leaque with economic-rationalists who would argue that any surplus “unnecessary” height results in fewer units available (not really because of cost of building but because there are fewer floors in a given height limit). I have inspected hundreds of apartments, primarily in Brisbane but also in all the places Iisted previously, and most modern apartments including ones claiming to be luxurious top-end, have oppressive, hideous low ceilings (at the Australian legal minimum of ≈2.4m) and unadorned corners etc that make them seem like prison cells. I saw a video-tour of the so-called luxury penthouse of that Brisbane millionaire woman (who runs the training schools) in one of those riverside hi-rises in the picture at the top of this article (on Crikey homepage). Other than the McMansion tackiness a la Donald Trump, it was the low ceilings that were particularly awful. Curiously in the seriously luxe apartments of the Bellagio and The Hudson (not really visible but in the gap between the two hi-rise to the left of that picture) the ceilings are high, and of course the buildings are low (8 and 11 floors I think).

    As some commenters have noted, most modern hi-rise are not built to high quality. Of course engineering-wise they are not going to fall down, but every dollar is saved where the developer legally can. So the party walls are simply not as good at insulation as they need to be (and it is the politicians responsible because the standards are minimal). The 80s apartment I first lived in in Brisbane CBD had much better party-walls than almost all these modern hi-rise I see.

    Then there is the obsession with glass curtain walls. This is a travesty on so many counts. Commenters have noted the privacy issue and this is the biggest culprit. In Paris one wouldn’t say privacy is as high as one would like but it is surprisingly good for such a crowded environment. Part of it is that the old buildings themselves are very solidly built. But a big part is that of course they don’t have gigantic glass curtain walls, they have a set of windows (often French doors that open inwards with a minimalist or no balcony–ie. often just a balustrade to stop you falling out; designed to allow max light + air, of course with external shutters that allow it to be open on summer nights etc). I’ve lived with both and there is no doubt in my mind: forget the curtain walls. It is a total con by developers and designers who should know better. In Australia, and especially Queensland, it is ridiculous because of nasty and constant (sunrise at 4.30 am!) intrusion of heat and blinding light. Developers like it because, contrary to some claims, it is actually cheaper to construct, and designers like it because the buildings are sleek with their much-valued “clean lines”. Ugh. We are terrorized by these people.
    The older designs are much better because you can have a window open or at least curtains drawn (and I happen to hate curtains, prefer those French/med shutters) and still have good privacy and without being assaulted by the sun & heat. (I believe this is even true for you sometimes sun-starved Melbournians.)

    Finally (though I am sure there are yet more factors) there is some counter-intuitive psychological factors involved in hi-rise, as Sammy Harry #11 alluded to. The connection to the street (which only applies up to …as it happens about 7-8 floors, yes, Parisian/Haussmannian!) is absolutely real though I don’t think everyone realizes it until they have experienced it. Combined with that height threshold effect is the illusory craving for views–whether water views or expansive “district” views. Believe me, no matter how good the view, unless it is uniquely animated (ok, Sydney harbour might qualify), it rapidly becomes wallpaper to the occupants. If you check out the balconies on most of that hi-rise you will find surprisingly few people on them–including weekends or nights etc. But if you check out low-rise you will find more occupation and use of those balconies. (Perhaps wind is also a factor. Perhaps even an innate human avoidance or feeling of insecurity above a certain height. )
    In fact one of the biggest “benefits” of great heights is the lack of a neighbour in your face. The irony here of course is that this is very rarely the case–again look at that conga line of hi-rises along the Brisbane river; in my inspections I have been shocked by the lack of privacy on balconies and even in living rooms, partly thru very careless design and the fact that the buildings follow the curve of the river and the fact that more and more of these hi-rise are getting crammed next to each other (there are another 4 not shown in this pic. including the latest Meriton’s Soleil now the tallest building in Brisbane filled with tiny apartments designed for the transient Asian student market).

    The trouble for planners and even well-intentioned developers (if there are any) is that the “market” has convinced themselves of a series of false notions, w.r.t design features (glass walls), “drenched in sunlight”, views and misunderstanding of what gives privacy and security in a building/home.

  23. Tom the first and best


    There is a big difference between poor quality housing commission flats and poor quality private construction, owner occupiers will often be in the position to fix up their flats if they need fixing and private landlords have to have competitive flats to get the highest paying tenants.

  24. Aidan Stanger

    Sammy Harry #1

    There’s a lot morre to history than one person’s take on it. Britain’s powtwar highrise housing experiment was indeed a disaster, but the main reason for that is the communities destroyed to make way for them. And of course the bad designs and poor construction ensured that the tower blocks quickly became undesirable places to live. So between 1979 and 1998 there wasn’t much demand for them. And the population was relatively stable. But since then the population’s risen, the worst towerblocks have been demolished, and problems with others have been fixed. So now at last there’s a commenrcial demand for high rise living.

    It’s not for everyone, and personally I’d prefer to live out in the sprawl where it’s not so noisy and the houses have gardens. But I can’t think of any great disadvantage of high rise compared to what they have in Paris.

  25. michael r james

    Burke John at 7:12 am

    Guilty as charged.
    The thing that has made me more and more “loony”, aggressive even, is hearing all the false arguments against good planning (by so-called experts that should know better) and the continued march towards a self-evidently awful, if not dystopian, American corporate-determined life here. For the record, I have lived in Brighton, Oxford (+London), Paris & San Francisco (short periods in Tokyo, Rotterdam, Sao Paolo/Belo Horizonte, briefly NYC), and owned housing in Brighton, Oxford, Paris and Brisbane. So, combined with my lifelong interest in urban planning and building design (my second career choice; became a research scientist), I reckon I bring a very carefully considered opinion (and professional ability to weigh evidence) to these topics based on, primarily, solid evidence and secondly on my subjective responses to a wide set of experiences around the world.

    Oh, and (sorry I’m OCD on some issues, you’d never guess) your comment “cities should be designed for people and not cars” has never particularly applied to Paris. Only in the 2000s with Bertrand Delanoe as mayor (and probably not coincidentally, the first openly-gay politician in France?) was there an explicit policy to make Paris better for people and less so for cars. In the 80s Mayor Jacques Chirac even had a gigantic scheme for massive car tunnels under Paris with associated parking (underground, there’s no where else) on the four cardinals. It was the last gasp of the “cure congestion by building more roads” school, and even Chirac dropped it when he was ridiculed for it. (And the Mandarins pointed out its unaffordability and poor business case.)

    Anyway, though I have not lived in Delanoe’s Paris (unless 2 weeks counts) but I hear that it has indeed improved. My 2007 visit coincided with the introduction of Velib and I could barely believe that Paris drivers had been tamed! Since then of course Velib has been adopted/adapted by cities around the world including Melbourne, Brisbane (both unsuccessfully because they didn’t pay attention to the way Paris did it), London, NYC, Barcelona, WashingtonDC, Montreal etc. And Delanoe’s elected official who was responsible for the programme, Anne Hidalgo (first generation immigrant-refugee from Franco’s fascist Spain) is the brand new mayor of Paris (since 2 weeks).

    Continuing on the cars issue, planners should also note that Paris and France has one of the best road systems in the world (and it would be embarrassing to compare to the UK) including the USA. Post-war and in the 60s, when long-term infrastructure planning decisions had to be made, France’s much-derided (by Anglophones) but highly-trained bureaucrats chose to use government budgets mostly on public transport–primarily the RER system in Paris, Metros in many provincial cities (Marseilles, Lyon, Lille, Toulouse etc), TGVs to link their country together while leaving much of the Autoroute network to the private sector where tolls would be the funding mechanism. (In practice various government sectors, eg. local + Departmental, take stakes in the toll-road companies); naturally the design etc of the network is tightly regulated by central government, as it should be. Many of those roads are now returning to public ownership as the toll-licenses expire, and so a significant new source of funds for government. (I’m currently doing research on this topic so don’t hold me to the last statement.)

    So when sundry economic-rationalists froth about “socialist” France they reveal their profound ignorance. Above all, it is the ethic of rationalism (tracing from the englightment via Napoleon I + III etc). (AD, here I’m mostly thinking of Judith Sloan who writes utter nonsense about France each time she swans into Paris for a bit of shopping. She’s appalled by the place. Yeah, wonderfully ironic, non? Another is Brit investment-banker David Buik who regularly insults everything French on his weekly Lateline Business gig, even as he talks about spending wonderful time in his other house in France! He probably drives there on the superb roads or maybe takes the Eurostar!! Incidentally one can now take a TGV from London all the way to Barcelona, actually on to Madrid and Seville. 35 years after France’s first TGV opened, Buik’s decrepit country is meandering towards–sometime in next 2 decades–their first HSR, in a country that was made for it. London is currently building CrossRail their direct equivalent to RER first line opened 1977! Who made the correct decisions?)

  26. potholes

    This is all confected demand! Why doesn’t anyone realise this?? These apartments also have been built with cheap materials and are little better in overall quality than the housing commission flats. I expect there will be revelations in 10-15 years time of people saying “why on earth didn’t we see that??”.

  27. Alan Davies

    (the other) HR Nicholls #10:

    Two of the key issues are streetscape, esp podiums or lack thereof, and privacy vis a vis adjacent buildings. I wasn’t thinking of build quality (essentially a private issue) or aesthetics (can get pretty subjective).

    Sammy Harry #11:

    Urban designer Jan Gehl has much the same view – see Is high-rise living unnatural?

  28. Sammy Harry

    I suspect that humans have some sort of biological connection to the land. Once they live above tree height, the disconnect starts to affect their behaviour.

  29. (the other) HR Nicholls

    ‘There are design issues with some of the recent towers that need to be addressed’ – Allan could you address what these issues are, because everyone always says “they’re awful” but beyond looking poxy/hideous or making judgements about build quality, nobody really spells it out.

  30. pinkocommierat

    Hard to imagine there’s a housing shortage…. I mean, just look at all these apartments being built for the wealthy! Who gives a rat’s about where the poor are going to live?

  31. Dylan Nicholson

    It would be interesting to see some data on what the primary reason people were choosing to move into apartments in the CBD (and surrounds). It’s something we’re seriously considering, mainly because my partner has the possibility of a very attractive job on one side of the city, whereas mine’s on completely the opposite, and due to the lack of alternative rail routes, somewhere near Flinders St or Southern Cross station is the only option that would be convenient for both of us. If the Metro tunnel was already in existence it would certainly open up a few more options, and if Melbourne actually had a proper subway network I doubt we would choose an apartment, and certainly not a high-rise one. FWIW I’m not at all concerned about the apartment towers “ruining” anything about the character of Melbourne – it’s purely the fact that people are piling in faster than sufficient infrastructure is being provided that bothers me.

  32. Burke John

    Michael R James must have spent too much time in Paris. The un-Australian nature of his rant is enough to make my blood boil.

    The inference seems to be that cities should be designed for people and not cars. Ridiculous and don’t expect me to give up my Right to Drive or my Right to Free Parking just to please some looney idealist.

  33. Tom the first and best


    Very interesting detailed information on Paris. Paris does indeed have many wide unblockadable (that is actually one of the main reasons they were built) boulevards.

    Docklands however, quite sensibly given its central location, also includes significant employment and so the mainly residential areas of Paris are not the best comparison.

  34. Tom the first and best


    The article quoted and linked to says that highrise contributes to crime even when adjusted for socio-economic status and also outside the UK. I would be very interested to see how exactly this was calculated?

    How was that data adjusted for socio-economic status? I would think that this area would be worth studying again with a higher proportion of the highrise being further up the income scale.

    Most highrise is in central city areas and much of that which could already have been studied happened before leaded petrol was banned and that has been a major contributor to urban crime. The figures for highrise crime may be effected by urban crime tending to be concentrated in inner-city areas where highrise tends to be built. Post-war highrise building design and security technology may also play a big part (lack of street level passive surveillance from shops and the like, entrances with poor sigh lines, less stringent controls for keeping people who are not residents and visitors out, etc).

  35. Jacob HSR

    “CBDs are not greenfields or brownfields sites.”

    Docklands was a brownfield site but unfortunately there was no decent masterplan for it. eg, thou shalt ensure every major road in Docklands has a cycleway along it. (there is one along Harbour Esplanade, but they didnt build one along Lorimer St) or thou shalt reserve land in Docklands to allow a 4-platform train station to be built next to Southern Cross Station.

    I think the tram tracks along Harbour Esplanade have been moved in the last few years, which shows that there was no decent planning.

    Your last dot point: “The vast majority of the apartments are occupied by singles and couples; not by families as they are in Hong Kong.”

    Is there something wrong if families living in duplex apartments? The primary school in Port Melbourne is bursting at the seams and a new school is slated to be built, but due to a lack of planning, there was no land reserved for one in Docklands.

    Unfortunately hardly any 4-5 bedroom apartments are built in Melbourne, the few that are get labelled “penthouses” and cost a fortune. But given that Sydney’s population is approaching that of Hong Kong, surely Sydney ought to build some 4-5 bedroom apartments for families to move into.

  36. michael r james

    @Sammy Harry at 3:32 pm

    Wonderful quotation. Though I think it is fair to say that the Brits built a particularly brutal kind of hi-rise social housing. Many of the projects in the US, even if they get a bad rap, are actually not bad in many cases–eg. East Village and even Lower East Side in lower Manhattan. Nevertheless the phenomenon is overwhelming: hi-rise is not likely to be sustainable (except perhaps in HK where there is little choice). All those who bought in hi-rise in Melbourne and Brisbane CBDs have got themselves a shaky deal. First, for all the usual reasons the quality is hardly ever there and second the modern day habit of running them as short-stay hotels (by the likes of Oak managers) destroys the ambience and amenity of them. As I have written on this blog before, those so-called hi-end apartments in Docklands are mostly pretty awful IMO, and is not compensated by views! The batch of hi-rise (max 31 floors) in the south-eastern arrondissement (13th) of Paris is another case in point: these were not social housing but not good quality and they have definitely not held their value compared to old, low blocks around them.

    Which was a neat segue into my usual “obsession” (using Paris as a model of how to build the world’s best and densest urban environment). And as usual AD could not get the major issues much more wrong. Almost all of those dotpoints are wrong for the reason that AD always ignores (even if he has tried to put in a pre-emptive strike on the Paris issue): high density≠hi-rise (in case that symbol doesn’t work, “does not equal” hi-rise). And in fact, in Australia hi-rise does not produce density like it might in those Asian cities.

    It should be said that comparisons with Hong Kong are not appropriate because simply taking density by itself can be very misleading. The Asians, and especially Hong Kongers, have a habit of making their crowded environment pretty appealing with very active ground-level. Buzzing with activity and restaurants and shops etc. Now you might think that of course Melbourne inner-CBD is pretty nice but that misses the point: it was pretty nice long before those hi-rises were built. So, to go back to a discussion on a very recent blog here, Melbourne made a serious, serious blunder by choosing to build hi-rise right in its existing fabric. Finally it turned to the obvious, the big space right next door, of Docklands. But it has mightily screwed it up too.

    AD writes:
    [Some argue that instead of towers, Melbourne could achieve the same population density in the city centre by emulating the low rise built-form of historic Paris. It certainly sounds attractive, but this romantic notion overlooks the narrow streets and limited open space in Paris.]

    Wrong on all counts. Again!
    Paris was rationally (re)designed late 19th century by creating wide boulevards and avenues (by definition, tree-lined) BUT as well as retaining, or in fact building in new areas, a denser network of narrower streets. This is a wonderful and functional approach. It may well be “romantic” but it is the outcome of a very rational process. And as to “limited open space”, one can understand how someone unfamiliar with Paris might say that but it is simply untrue (and I won’t even mention Bois de Boulogne which is 2.5 times the size of NYC Central Park; because I don’t believe huge parks provide the most amenity to a dense city; more below. )

    So, let’s compare the exclusively hi-rise district of Melbourne Docklands with actual dense urban areas elsewhere: In 2014, population is 5,791 on 3.05 km2 (density 1,900/km2).“..a future (2015) residential population of over 20,000” .. would give 6,600/km2.

    A future population of 20,000? Wow, is that all? This was a colossal missed opportunity and in the 21st century is quite unforgivable; the planners should be put in public stocks and pelted with tomatoes. It is apparently at one third its final capacity but shows no sign of vitality or ground-level amenity; and of course there is all that awful wind-blown open space, and big roads one has to wait to cross.

    Hong Kong Island: population of 1,289,500 and its population density is 16,390/km² as of 2008. I think there are denser areas of Hong Kong but given its topography (eg. Lantau island is huge but almost empty of people so it distorts sensible comparisons) a fair case. And of course everyone is more familiar with HK Island (or Central which will be the highest density though Aberdeen is high too) and most would agree it has superlative amenity.

    Paris-15th arrondissement has 232,000 population (2005) in 8.5 km2 for density of 27,300/km2. This is the largest arrondissement in Paris by both area and population; it is one of the newer areas (borders the western side of Eiffel Tower/Champs de Mars) and so is mostly residential (SW of Montparnasse hipster district around Gare Montparnasse which is actually within it, as is the Pasteur Institute nearby, just about the only sites visited by tourists). So, it is mostly residential and is sought-after by average Parisians because it is quiet, more affordable and low-rise. It didn’t entirely escape the 70s almost-trend of hi-rise (lower than in the 13th, I think about 20 floors) with the relatively small cluster of upmarket BeauGrenelle towers-complex on the river just downstream from the Eiffel Tower.

    As to open space, I just tried, but at beyond 40 I gave up trying to count accurately the parks (not including sports grounds). Most of these are small (perhaps “pocket parks”) to smallish but as I hinted earlier, I believe this is by far the better arrangement than one big park, especially for dense living. (Of course we’d all like to live overlooking Jardin du Luxembourg but most of us cannot afford that, just as only multimillionaires can live adjoining, let alone overlooking, NY’s Central Park). But in just the time I have known Paris they have built three moderate-sized parks (the biggest in the 15th): P. Andre Citroen (on the old car works), P. Georges Brassens and the Jardin Atlantic over the rebuilt Gare Montparnasse + tracks. There are two huge sporting areas built on land reclaimed from the city walls (and therefore next to the Peripherique ring road; incidentally it is here, on the other side of the Peripherique is the site for the proposed controversial Herzog de Mueuron’s futuristic hi-rise Le Projet Triangle ).

    The point is that if we used Paris-15 as a model, Docklands could have had ≈80,000 population (for ≈27,000/km2) with dozens of small parks and squares and sporting facilities. With the vast majority of residential buildings no higher than 8 floors (and most of 6 to 7). Just like Beaugrenelle, it could have had a compact cluster of hi-rise, probably adjoining the Southern Cross station for a business area.

    IMO it is indisputable that such a plan would have produced a much more attractive and desirable place to live. This kind of dense low building with squares and parks overcomes the windy problem and indeed creates naturally convivial gathering places. And AD, it would have provided for 60,000 more people than the current Dockland mature plan! Even if you, say, doubled the size of Australian apartments over Paris that would still be ≈30,000 more people who could live in a terrific convenient location, and of course enough to create its own local mini-economy/community (which Docklands is manifestly failing to do). Incidentally the high-ceilinged ground floor would be suitable for commercial & small business space, what the French call professional-liberale. And there would probably be an equal number, or more, of premium apartments with water views for those with money. Even the bloody developers would have made more money!

    Incidentally Paris-15 is not the densest area of Paris by a long way. The record is held by Paris-11 (N & NE of Bastille) which is closer in size to Docklands, with 152,500 people in 3.7 km2 for density of 41,600/km2. Again, it is because it has few government offices or large hospitals or monuments, and no hi-rise at all. It has about 13 small parks and the ≈1.6 km long park that covers the Canal St Martin (from Bastille to Pl. de la Republic where the canal emerges above ground) and which becomes the very lively Richard Lenoir food and bricolage market each Sunday. Also the 11th directly borders one of my favourite “parks” in Paris: the huge Cemetiere du Pere Lachaise, greatest cemetery in the world where you can walk or picnic among the shaded calm “avenues” and commune with JIm, Oscar, Edith, Colette, Sarah et al (and Balzac: I seldom go out, but when I feel myself flagging I go and cheer myself up in Pere Lachaise, while seeking out the dead I see nothing but the living. )

    So, while I may have overdosed on my usual Parisianophile detail, I hope the serious points are clear. No need to look to Asia. The Parisian model is not some curiosity but a real world example for the modern world.

  37. Chris

    Sammy I think its disingenuous to compare poorly designed council housing estates to the modern resurgence in high rise living. The current expansion in high rise living wouldn’t be exist if there were not the demand. Its ridiculous to claim that because some high rise social housing estates became effected by crime that the same will also be true of all other high rises.

  38. Sammy Harry

    Nicholas Boys Smith:

    For twenty years very few tower blocks were built in Britain. Between 1979 and 1998 only 6 buildings above 35 metres were built. Why? Because the post-war experiment in high-rise living was a disaster…..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.

    But there is money involved and who reads history these days?

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