Lessons for high-rises, Dr James White

GLASGOW’S love-hate relationship with the high-rise has, these last few years, been mostly about pulling them down, notable examples including the 2015 demolition of the Red Road Flats in Balornock, in the north-east of the city.

But there are signs suggesting the relationship is beginning to warm. 

And, if the evidence from high-rise hotspots such as London, Manchester, Vancouver, Hong Kong and Sydney, is any guide, how high-rises are delivered can be something of a moveable feast. 

Gathering the evidence was the ambition of a report I had the privilege of co-authoring, just published by the Glasgow-based UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE).

Reviewing the international evidence base, the study addressed the following questions:

  • What factors are driving the proliferation of high-rise developments?
  • What are the characteristics of high-rise developments in terms of density, unit size and the socio-demographics of those residing in them? And what effect do they have on social cohesion, crime, etc.? and
  • How sustainable is this housing typology and how should policymakers and practitioners respond to high-rise developments both today and in the future?

The current direction of travel for the modern-day high-rise is market-led apartments, for sale or to rent, mainly to single people, couples and ‘downsizers’.

Many of these blocks come fitted with gyms, swimming pools and resident lounges; albeit, we found instances – during our research – where the residents of ‘affordable’ apartments in these blocks (being provided as part of negotiations with planners) were being denied access to these fancy add-ons.

The planning argument for high-rise is mostly about densification, which resonates with aspirations of creating ’20-minute neighbourhoods’, trying to reduce reliance on the car to access basic services such as shopping and GP practices.

As Glasgow explores how to increase the population of its city centre, the tower block might well have a significant role to play – so long as attendant ‘community’ assets, such as corner shops and small-scale parks, are introduced in parallel.

Around the world, there are numerous examples of tower blocks being built where the main concern is less about their height (blocking views and shadowing) and more about their relationship – at ground level – with neighbouring buildings.

And a common response that you might see in Canada or Australia, where these buildings are common, is an effort to make the first few storeys of the tower fit with neighbouring buildings, with the tower element set back from the streetscape by a good few metres.

But there are other challenges about tower blocks that go beyond their external appearance – which was a focus of our research.

The first is about the residential mix, and whether enough apartments are created for families. A tower block that is mainly for singletons and professional couples might be attractive to investors and global finance, but you have to ask to what extent it is addressing local housing need.

And a second concern is about ongoing maintenance and repair. As it is, in Scotland, it’s almost the luck of the draw that eight households in a tenement block might properly organise themselves to maintain the fabric of their building. 

When tower blocks were built by the public sector, there was only one owner responsible for repairs and the building fabric. 

But these new tower blocks could comprise several dozen different owners. You need a system of collective governance in place, which is made clear to everyone thinking about moving into such accommodation.

These concerns are universal, and not specific to any single city – such as Glasgow.

Personally, I can see some benefits to tower blocks, if they are designed well for the long-term, but there are some significant caveats that we would all do well to be mindful of.

Dr James White is a senior lecturer in urban studies at the University of Glasgow. With Bilge Serin, he is co-author of ‘High-rise residential development’, published here – by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. 

Pictured: Vancouver, Canada. Picture credit: the author

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