Create Streets, not Slums in the Sky

BY Nicholas Boys Smith | October 2012

Earlier this year, Renzo Piano’s Shard was finally unveiled as the latest tall building to appear on London’s skyline. It has since attracted a mixed response; it’s certainly a striking statement, but one that towers alone, imposing itself upon one of London’s most historic boroughs. In this series of Think Pieces, we have asked a range of contributors to consider whether tall buildings are really the answer to our social, economic and environmental challenges of the future, in the context of continued population increase and global urbanisation.

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With a curious lack of public debate the high-rise phoenix has risen from the cinders. This is bad for Britain and bad for those forced to live in tower-blocks – especially social tenants. The right answer to the housing challenge is high density streets with terraced houses and low-rise flats.

For twenty years very few tower blocks were built in Britain. Between 1979 and 1998 only 6 buildings above 35 metres were built. Why? Because the post-war experiment in high-rise living was a disaster. Summoned into existence by the 1956 Housing Subsidy Act (which offered higher public subsidies the higher the building), the 4,500 tower blocks built by 1979 quickly descended into a frightening dystopia. Communities resisted moving. The new multi-storey housing became ‘hard-to-let’. Families and households refused to move in. The Thamesmead Estate, completed in 1968, was 40 percent full by 1974. 55 percent were refusing to move into the Broadwater Farm Estate within five years of completion. And Ernö Goldfinger’s iconic Trellick Tower (known locally as the ‘Tower of Terror’ due to the risk of rape) was ‘hard-to-let’ within months. In 1971 A Clockwork Orange used tower blocks to symbolise a savage future with the film’s teenage protagonist (and ‘ultra-violence’ practitioner) living in ‘Municipal Flatblock 18A.’

Town planners lost confidence. Subsidies to build high were reduced. In 1977, an apostle of monolithic slab-blocks, Peter Smithson, admitted that he had ‘made a big mistake’ in his monumental designs. High-rise building stopped. Many post-war blocks were demolished. Most of the remaining ones will be destroyed over the next twenty years.

However, we have forgotten this past. We are in danger of reliving it. In the last decade there has been a ‘resurgence’ of high-rise building. Planning rules, and fashion, have changed. By 2004 24 buildings above 35 metres were being built per year. In 2003 there were only 1,800 high-density flat developments in England. By 2007 there were 5,600 with 3,800 under construction and 5,600 more with planning permission. This is a 740 percent increase.

One example is the redevelopment of the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich. An enormous estate of tower and slab blocks with few real streets is being replaced with an enormous estate of tower and slab blocks with few real streets.

Ferrier Estate (c.1970)

Kidbrooke Village (c.2012)

In fact, these new multi-storey flats are worse. 1960s apartments were large. New ones are much smaller. RIBA has shown that the average new-build home in the UK is 11 percent smaller than older homes. They are the smallest in Europe and getting smaller. New homes are 53 percent bigger in Holland and 80 percent bigger in Denmark. This is why the redevelopment of one of the worst estates (the South London Heygate) can replace 1,100 flats with 2,462. Unsurprisingly, many flat-purchasers in the new developments don’t actually want to live in them. They are investors who wish to let them. This has all the makings of a future slum should poor demand and falling rentals ever reduce the incentive to invest in their maintenance. We are repeating the mistakes of the past.

Why are tower blocks and large slab blocks so unpopular? 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. Many peer-reviewed, controlled studies show that even when you take account of social and economic status, high-rise living is correlated with social breakdown, crime and misery. This is categorically not just the case in Britain. Nor is it just due to the concentration of poorer residents in British post-war developments. The evidence is too strong and too international.

One comparison of socially identical student populations found that those in high-rise accommodation committed measurably more (petty) crime than students in a nearby low-rise hall of residence. They were also less sociable. Numerous studies corroborate this. One showed that crimes were 28 percent higher nearby and 604 percent higher in the interior public spaces of high-rises. Multi-storey housing is also correlated with bad social outcomes for residents, again even when socio-economic conditions are identical. British, Indian, US, Hong Kong, Japanese and European studies over many years have consistently found higher levels of neurosis, emotional strain, stress, depression, mental illness and marital discord among those living on higher floors. Children suffer from more stress, hyperactivity, hostility, juvenile delinquency and temper tantrums. They are less likely to learn to dress themselves or use the lavatory age-appropriately.

Streets are provably better. People prefer them. They are less anonymous and easier for families. Crime is lower. People are happier. The economic returns to long term landowners are fantastic. And the great news it that we don’t need to build towers to achieve high densities. Official reposts and academic studies show that terraced streets can match the housing densities (about 75 units/hectare) of most existing high-rise housing developments. That is why as Southwark did more to replace streets with high-rise dwellings post-war than any other borough the local population fell. That is why (as the LSE has found) the terraced flats and houses of Notting Hill, Lancaster Gate and Earl’s Court are the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the country. This is why, in short, we do not need to build tower-blocks but can create streets.


Nicholas Boys Smith is a former political advisor and strategy consultant at McKinsey & Co. He is now a Director at a UK bank, a Consultant Director of the think tank Reform and a Board member of the Swan Foundation.
\Create Streets\ exists to encourage the replacement of South London’s 1960s estates with conventional streets and squares, terraces and villas. Most people who can afford to do so choose to live in normal homes in normal streets. They exist to help create neighbourhoods that give everyone this choice and everyone this sense of “place.” They aim to give a voice to local residents, encourage urban designers to put forward sympathetic plans, developers to develop them and local councils and housing associations to commission them whilst encouraging support in the media or central government as necessary.