There's no shortage of opportunities for "chance encounters" in the centres of Australian cities where most of the high-rise apartment boom is happening
There’s no shortage of opportunities for “chance encounters” in the centres of Australian cities where most of the high-rise apartment boom is happening. But let’s not conflate the benefits of street activation with the importance of close interpersonal relationships

Here is The Age reporting on a warning by architect and academic, Kerry Clare, that “sky-high living is harming the nation’s urban fabric” and “promoting social isolation” (High-rise apartments are bad to live in and bad for society, says respected architect).

Professor Clare argued that building apartments in high-rise towers meant more people were “detached from street life”…Living in a high-rise building radically reduced the sort of chance encounters that lower-rise dwellings ensured were inevitable, as residents were on the street more often, she said. “High-rises diminish people’s participation in public spaces,” she said, citing the work of another architect, Taz Looman, who has argued towers “create silos – physical, social and psychological”.

I don’t know whether to cry or burst out laughing when The Age dishes up this sort of stuff, but the august organ felt it was important enough to devote 1,200 words and six photographs to it. I think a long sigh and a headshake is probably the appropriate reaction.

Professor Clare’s notion that living in high-rise “radically” reduces chance encounters with others compared to lower height buildings is, to put it as nicely as possible, rubbish.

Residents of towers ‘bump’ into fellow occupants who live on the same floor; they share elevators; and they use the same entrance lobby and communal facilities as hundreds of other residents. If they want to get to know each other better the opportunity is certainly there. (1)

And if that’s not enough, they’re only a brief elevator ride from whatever chance encounters the street has to offer. It only takes 38 seconds for the elevator serving Eureka Tower’s Skydeck to go express from the 88th floor to the ground. Of course elevators usually tend to stop at some intervening floors, but that provides yet more scope for bumping into fellow residents.

Lack of opportunity for chance encounters is hardly a problem for the young singles and couples without dependents who’re over-represented in city centre towers. They want to get out and enjoy life on the street. Indeed, the very reason they’re prepared to live in small apartments is so they can be in the centre of the action!

They want to partake of the innumerable cafes, restaurants, bars, shops and cultural services on their doorstep. If there up for an encounter, chance or otherwise, they’ve chosen to live in the right place; that they have that choice is largely due to the housing supply provided by high-rise towers.

The key misconception here though is the excessive weight Professor Clare gives to the value of chance encounters. The depth of interactions is what’s important for people’s wellbeing, not something as trite as the number of people you might see or potentially bump into on the street. Rich interactions come from relationships built over time on trust and mutual obligation, not from chance encounters with strangers.

Professor Clare’s contention that high-rise towers are causally linked to social isolation is also doubtful. The absence of meaningful and intimate relationships with others – often manifest in feelings of loneliness and depression – has deep psychological, physiological and social roots that overwhelm any possible effect of living on the fifty-fifth floor rather than the fifth floor. Of all the things that might cause a person to feel socially isolated, the height they live above ground level strikes me as pretty minor, even trivial.

Some studies have implied an association between high-rise and mental health more generally, but the historic use of this building form for social housing suggests it’s a sorting effect, not causal. In fact other studies conclude high-rise is healthier than low-rise; although this is likely a sorting effect too.

The critical factor for this debate is residents of the towers that Professor Clare criticises are choosing to live in them; this isn’t social housing where choice is often limited. These residents are relatively financially secure and importantly, they’re overwhelmingly renters, so they’re not locked in. And of course if they’re wanting distraction, they’ve got a multitude of opportunities on their doorstep.

All housing forms have disadvantages and high-rise is no exception. But those downsides have to be assessed against the benefit of enabling a lot of people to live in highly sought-after locations like the city centre where there’s a limited supply of (mostly quite small) development sites.

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  1. It’s ironic that the Victorian government’s proposed amenity standards will very likely reduce the number of apartments per floor and the total number of occupants in towers.
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