Ups and downs of high-rise living
Birmingham city council is planning to demolish nearly all of its 315 tower blocks at a time when London property developers are talking of a tower block comeback. So is high-rise doomed or does it represent a solution for overcrowded cities? Matt Weaver sets out the arguments for and against
The Guardian, Friday January 18, 2002

Density: Two of the biggest problems in London and the south-east are transport and the lack of affordable housing. New tower blocks would offer a way of alleviating both problems. Intense demand for housing in property hot spots and the acute shortage of affordable land means that in many areas the only way to build cheaper homes is to build taller buildings. Higher density inner city living would also help ease the crush on the trains and roads by housing people closer to work.

Architecture: When tower blocks are well-designed, high-rise can be often be popular. The homes in tower blocks designed by so called "signature architects" such as Erno Goldfinger, Denys Lasdun, and Berthold Lubetkin can fetch around £300,000 in London.

Green belt: Higher density inner city development would help prevent urban sprawl and protect the countryside.

Higher quality homes: The technology for building tower blocks has dramatically improved since the problem-prone system-built flats of the 1960s. New modular building techniques means that homes or pods in new tower blocks are often built to the same specification as modern cars. These pods are slotted into place after being assembled in factories, a process which is far more efficient than traditional brick house building.

Community: Demolition of existing tower blocks may often make sense economically and on the face of it mark a fresh start in an area. However, housing experts warn that demolition can destroy any sense of community in an area. It can also signal desperation on the part of authorities about a neighbourhood and destroy any local confidence in a place.

Views: The simplest and most enjoyable advantage of tower blocks is the views they give residents. It is this and the easy access to local facilities that make high-rise popular with both young professionals and older people.

The case against

Repairs: Whatever the technological innovations claimed by architects, repairing existing tower blocks can be exorbitantly expensive. It costs at least 10 times more to refurbish a block than demolish it, so if anything serious does go wrong the cheapest option is often to knock them down. Windows, for example, are much more difficult to replace at 20 flights up than at street level.

Security: Unlike a traditional house on a street, a lot of the public space in and around a tower block is not overlooked by residents. Crucially the entrances to tower blocks are often concealed - there are no twitching lace curtains to put off would-be thieves and muggers. The absence of so called "defensible space" means that tower blocks can be frightening places to walk in and out of - the fear of crime in such places is often worse than the reality. And because it is unclear who is responsible for the space around tower blocks, that space is often abused with litter, abandoned cars and graffiti.

Anonymity: The sheer number of people coming in and out of tower blocks means that residents do not question the presence of strangers. In privately run blocks security can be vastly improved by the employment of a porter, but such a luxury is usually out of the reach of cash-strapped councils.

Location: Tower blocks are only really popular when they are located in fashionable areas. For example, while Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower in Notting Hill is very popular, Goldfinger's Balfron Tower in unfashionable Tower Hamlets is loathed. And try telling the residents of Park Hill estate in Sheffield that they live in a modern masterpiece.

Families: High-rise living is particularly unsuitable for families because of the absence of outside space. One of the reasons that tower blocks have such a bad reputation is that councils placed so many families in tower blocks against their will. The reputation of tower blocks may begin to change if people have more choice about where they live. Doubts will remain, however, about a building type that is only really suitable for those without children.