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Are High-Rise Buildings Good or Bad For People?

What is bad or good about high-rise buildings? In the light of the Grenfell Towers disaster in London where over 80 people have been confirmed dead, it is expedient we weigh the risk involved in living and working in high-rise building. 

The Grenfell Towers fire disaster is not the first time an ugly incident in a high-rise building will lead to high death toll. Remember the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World trade centre which led to the death of 2606 people in and around the high-rise building? No doubt, when it comes to disasters in high-rise buildings the casualty figure is always high. But why do we have to erect structures that will turn out to be a recipe for disaster?

A brief history of high-rise buildings

If the minimal definition of a high-risen building is a building taller than three storeys, then the history of high rises may be traced back to the pyramids of Egypt (about 48 storeys in height) and the Tower of Babel as told in Genesis 11 of the Bible.

According to the account, before the tower was complete God decided that if humans could complete such a tower, they could accomplish anything. That was not acceptable, so God caused confusion among the people by cursing them with multiple languages. Everyone had spoken the same language until then, and their tower-building success was attributed to this.

Then the people were dispersed, and apparently the tower was deconstructed soon afterward. Some modern critics of high-rise buildings may believe that God had the right idea about the human conceit involved in building tall buildings.

People did not build tall structures again until the late 1600s, apart from a few Roman apartment buildings of six or seven storeys and Europe’s gothic cathedrals.

17th century Paris had thousands of houses 5-7 storeys tall. Tall buildings with iron skeletons began to be constructed in the 1860s.

In 1885, a 10-storey building was constructed in Chicago by William Le Baron Jenney, followed by Sullivan’s Wainwright Building five years later. The rest is history; millions now live in high-rise buildings.

The raw deal

Thus, given the age of our species, living more than a few storeys up is a very recent phenomenon. This tempts one to conclude that high-rise buildings are unnatural, and some would argue that what is unnatural must be in some way harmful.

Of course, the same has been said about plastics, electricity, automobiles and other recent inventions. Nevertheless, the question remains a fair one: Are high-rise buildings a net benefit or cost to their residents?

High rises have been accused of causing many unpleasant outcomes. Among these are fear, dissatisfaction, stress, behavioural problems, suicide, poor social relations, reduced helpfulness, and hindered child development.

Early studies and reviews concluded that high-rises are, on balance, not beneficial for residents. At the societal level, they are accused of burdening existing services and infrastructure, worsening traffic problems, and damaging the character of neighbourhoods.

High-rise residences evoke at least six fears. They are as follows;

  1. The residents themselves are their own security threat; A loved one or a neighbour may fall or jump from a high window. Whenever this tragedy occurs, it receives much media attention, perhaps because the nightmare has come true for someone.

2. Perhaps paradoxically, some residents fear that they may be trapped inside during a fire; it usually takes longer           to reach the street from a high-rise dwelling than from dwellings of a few storeys.

3. Residents in places with active tectonic plates worry about the entire building falling because of an earthquake.

4.  In the post-McVey, post-9/11 era, residents cannot help harbouring at least a slight fear that their building                    might be attacked.

5. The sheer number of people who reside in One Big Residence means that, in a sense, strangers share your                     dwelling, at least the semi-public areas of it. This fear of strangers leads to fear of crime, a felt lack of social                   support and the absence of community in the midst of many.

Anonymous interaction in visually screened areas within high rises creates the objective possibility of crime.                This is more likely when outsiders can enter the building. The very fact that many high-rises have entrances                  with keys and guards proves that this fear exists, even if no strangers manage to enter.

6. The sheer number of people in one building may increase the fear of becoming ill from communicable diseases            generated by others. Air- and touch-borne flus and colds, for example, spread more easily when many people                share hallway air, door handles and elevator buttons.

Perhaps none of these fears is realistic. Perhaps they simply are salient because so many people live so close together, and communicate their fears verbally or nonverbally. Perhaps, on a base rate or per capita basis, no more negative outcomes occur among high-rise residents than among residents of any other form of housing.

On the other hand, perhaps, there are truly more negative outcomes, but they are caused by factors other than housing form.

However high-rise buildings do have their merits. Tall thin buildings have smaller footprints than the equivalent number of low-rise housing units, and therefore may occupy less land area (but not necessarily, depending on siting). This, in principle, leaves more room for parks and green space, although this open space has often become a dangerous no-man’s land controlled by undesirable elements.

High rises offer great views, at least to upper-level residents, unless their view is blocked by other high rises, and relative urban privacy. Their usual central urban location is an advantage for those who desire it.

Many services and transportation options are likely to be near, and the large number of nearby neighbours affords greater potential choice of friends and acquaintances for social support. Those who live in their upper reaches experience less noise from outside the building, and may breathe cleaner air.

For some residents, high population density at the building level may promote more and better social interaction. Controlled entrances reduce crime and the fear of crime. Compared to the single-family resident, high-rise residents are free of yard and maintenance work, although part of the rent or condominium fees must go to pay others to do that work.

All this, so far, reflects conventional wisdom and speculation, a list of complaints and benefits one might hear anywhere. How many of the negative and positive claims are supported by research? The answer is complex and incomplete, but research does provide some partial answers.

The height of a building presumably has few, if any, direct causal effects. Ultimately, as one early research team concluded, different buildings probably have different advantages and disadvantages for different residents.

The task of the architectural social scientist is to discover which buildings are salutogenic or pathogenic for which people.

Furthermore, the outcomes of living in a high rise depend in part on various non-building factors, including characteristics and qualities of the residents themselves, and the surrounding physical context.

Also, research shows that building location plays a role in a resident’s exposure to crime that is independent of building form. For instance, crime seems to be more frequent when buildings are placed near easy escape routes or on corners.

In summary, high rises may have positive or negative effects on those who live in them, depending not on building height alone (the defining characteristic of high rises), but many other moderating factors.

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