Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets, a social enterprise encouraging urban homes in terraced streets not multi-storey buildings

There has not been such political focus on building new homes for 50 years.

This is good. All main political parties had something to say about house-building in the conference season. Lack of available housing is the major drag on living standards in London, the South East and pretty nearly all the more economically active parts of the county. And ‘Homes’ now bestrides the Conservative Home website as one of the three top policy challenges for activists and centre-right policy wonks up and down the county. Excellent.

But what will be built ? Does it matter ? And what impact does the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act (arguably the least reformed part of the post-war consensus) still have on our lives and homes ? A whole generation of politicians and political activists have grown up not asking these questions and not thinking about these issues. It is time to start.

For the UK has one of the most centrally and comprehensively regulated planning and building systems in the world and which, as our recent research has found, in cities is badly stacked against the types of homes in normal streets that people actually want. It should be no surprise therefore that we are currently witnessing a second revolution of high rise living. The English Housing survey estimates there are 432,000 flats in ‘purpose-built high-rise flats’ (up from 390,000 in the previous year). Knight Frank says there are 100 new tower blocks being built in London alone.

A generation ago, so great was the public backlash (in the UK and elsewhere) against the destruction of traditional street-based communities and their decanting into off-street multi-storey concrete horrors that much research was commissioned into what forms of housing were popular and correlated with good social outcomes. So clear was the evidence, so great the public distaste that the previous revolution of multi-storey housing was stopped in its tracks.

These studies have been largely forgotten, and more recent ones which support their findings are little read. However, the findings are clear. And if we ignore them we are in danger not just of repeating the mistakes of the past but of inflicting misery on future generations.

Why do 89 percent of Britons want to live in a house on a street, 0 percent in a tower block and only 2 percent in an apartment? Is this just a naïve British desire for cottages and country roses? Far from it. People are being deeply rational. For, put simply, living in big tall buildings is not good for you. The vast majority of controlled studies show that the residents of large multi-storey blocks suffer from more strain and mental health difficulties than those in low-rise buildings, even when socio-economic status is identical

To cite just a few examples, among many, a study of British military families randomly assigned to houses and low-rise flats found those in flats suffered from about three times the rate of neurosis as those in detached houses whilst also being 57 per cent more likely to need to go the doctor and 63 per cent more likely to be referred to a specialist.

A 1978 study of socially similar residents of the Bronx in New York found ‘vast differences’ between those living in high-rise and low-rise buildings. Those in high-rise had less social support, a lower sense of control over their lives and felt more crowded than their sociologically identical neighbours in low-rise buildings. UK researchers have found that mothers in flats are more depressed and lonely, that rates of mental illness rose with floor levels, that psychological symptoms increased in high-rise buildings and that those moving out of high-rise became happier and less depressed.

A study that controlled carefully for age, education and occupational level found that husbands in flats rather than small houses had a greater incidence of psychiatric illness, that fathers had worse relationships with their children (hitting them more often) and that marital discord was higher. Recent academic articles state it as an established truth that, for example, ‘high-rise housing is inimical to the psychological well-being of women with young children.’ And so and so on. You can read a good summary of many other studies here.

The correlations between high-rise living and childhood behavioural problems are particularly stark– again even when socio-economic status is comparable. No study has found high-rise living beneficial to children. Many have found the opposite. Though not as strong, the evidence also suggests that tower blocks might even encourage suicide. Without wishing to be glib, tower blocks don’t just make you more depressed. They make it easier to kill yourself – you can jump. One 1992 study found that (rich high rise) Manhattan’s suicide rate was double that of (poorer low rise) Brooklyn – and that jumping from tall buildings entirely explained the difference. A Singapore study found the same phenomenon.

There is overwhelming evidence that medium and high-rise blocks are negatively correlated with neighbourliness and positively correlated with crime and anti-social behaviour. Houses with sociologically similar housing tenants in them see less crime and more socially positive behaviour. One influential survey led by Professor Alice Coleman in the early 1980s found very strong positive correlations between levels of litter, excrement, graffiti and vandalism and the presence of tower blocks. Having examined 4,099 blocks and 1,800 single dwellings in Tower Hamlets and Southwark, the study found (for example)

  • litter in 86 per cent of the blocks and 20 per cent of the single family houses
  • Faeces and urine on 7.5 and 44 per cent of the blocks respectively and in the doorways of 0 and 0.1 per cent of the single family houses
  • Graffiti on 76 per cent of the blocks and 1.2 per cent of the single family houses, and
  • Vandalism on 39 per cent of the blocks and 1.9 per cent of the single family houses.

Other studies in other countries strongly substantiate these findings and show a positive correlation between high-rise living, crime and behaviour problems and a negative correlation between high-rise living and neighbourliness and pro-social behaviour even when socio-economic status is identical.

A 1980s comparison of Californian students found that students in high-rise accommodation committed measurably more (largely petty) crime than those in a nearby low-rise hall of residence. An important 1970s US study by Oscar Newman found that the number of felony crimes rose with the height of the building in which the family lived for both poor single-parent families and moderate-income two-parent families. Crimes occurred at about the same rate inside apartments but were twenty-eight per cent higher outside buildings and 604 per cent higher in the interior public spaces

Why is this ? Human being are not automatons. Can we really be controlled by our environment like this. The data seems to support three themes.

Firstly, multi-storey homes are simply hard places to bring up children. Several studies show that children go outside less when they live in high-rises and that they spend more time playing alone or in restricted play. This is not without consequences. One controlled study, compared mothers of under 5s in the Newcastle estate of Cruddas Park. 62 per cent of mothers living on the sixth floor or above reported difficulties with the ‘play, health [or] personality’ of their children. 53 per cent of mothers in high rise below the sixth floor reported issues. However only 3 per cent of mothers in houses reported issues. It should be no surprise that 79 per cent of all families living on or above the fifth floor are social tenants compared to 21 per cent of all families. Families who can choose, choose streets.

Secondly, large buildings atomise and dehumanise. They increase anonymity and decrease friendships. Residents may meet more people but they will know fewer of them. They feel far fewer bonds of social interdependence. But society needs these bonds. In a 2007 survey, Professor Robert Gifford, has cited a very wide range of controlled studies that make this point emphatically. People just aren’t as nice to each other in large blocks of flats.

For example, in two 1970s studies stamped addressed envelopes were placed on hallway floors in college halls of residence that were 22-25, 4-7 and 2-4 storeys high. Letters were mailed in inverse proportion to building height in both studies. Donations were also sought of milk cartons for an art project. The fewest donations per capita were received in high-rise blocks. Interviews of student residents in these and one other Israeli study also reported that social support and involvement declined with height within buildings.

Finally, it is simply easier to commit crime in the complicated concrete, brick and glass jungles of multi-storey housing. It offers a plethora of semi-private, semi-public unpoliceable spaces such as corridors and stairwells which are hard to survey and which offer multiple escape routes. Streets with windows and doors looking out onto them are open to easy public view. Dealing drugs or committing a robbery outside a house on a street is possible. But it does mean exposing yourself and there are likely to be witnesses. An external corridor on the (say) sixth floor of a medium-rise slab-block is a rather easier proposition. There is still a risk of being witnessed.

Most flats have small kitchen windows looking out onto the corridor and you might be spotted from afar. But overall the chances of quickly snatching a bag or wielding a knife unobserved are greater. Easier still however would be an internal corridor or stairwell in a tower block. There are very unlikely to be any witnesses. It is not for nothing that the stairwells, corridors and landings of tower blocks have long been associated with fear and crime. What is particularly depressing is that some recent multi-storey housing repeats many of the design flaws of 50 years ago with multiple front doors off the same stairwell and the same semi-private, semi-public spaces – sometimes with near unfettered public access. It is very depressing. Crime rates are lower than a generation ago so hopefully the consequences will be less dreadful.

But surely, in the likely glut of house-building in the years to come, let’s not take that risk. We have the evidence to avoid the errors of the past. We are just ignoring it. Instead, let’s change the rules which make it hard to build normal terraced streets in places like London and let’s give people not planners far more influence on what gets built. People oppose new build because they don’t like it. They do care what gets built. And, given the research, they are being deeply rational to prefer streets to multi-storey living.

Let’s stop the high-rise renaissance, start working with the grain and create streets with popular support rather than a second generation of tower-blocks without it.

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