Terry Fowler

The Trouble With High Rises

At a time when we are trying to make cities more compact and therefore more environmentally friendly, residential high rises appear to be a grand way to increase urban density. In the Greater Toronto Area, where I live, they are going up by the dozens. Not just in Toronto, but all over the world, developers and the municipal councillors who support them, describe these high rises as epitomizing a vibrant
downtown lifestyle that will contribute to the city’s urban vitality. Even Jane Jacobs has been invoked as a fan of them. Anyone reading her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities will find she is not.

It is distressing to observe this uncritical acceptance of so many tall residential buildings.

From a simple financial perspective, while high rises may be extremely profitable for developers, who can use them to crowd many units on to a piece of land, these buildings are expensive. A study by the Housing Development Administration of New York City compared the costs of three-storey, three family homes with high rises – at the identical density of fifty units per acre. Construction costs per room were nearly double in the high-rises, and maintenance costs 50% higher. The reasons for the higher costs were varied, but included the willingness and ability of homeowners to make small repairs, and complex systems such as elevators and heating systems that required
construction and maintenance by experts. The extra construction costs for high rises reflect, in part, the use of more materials and energy, which means a greater cost to the environment.

The builders of one of Toronto’s most famous high rise developments, St. Jamestown, unloaded their buildings because they were too costly to keep up, especially as the years went by. A casual visitor to the area will notice that the present owners don’t overexert themselves with maintenance. Currently, most high rises in this city are condos, so maintenance costs have become the responsibility of the owners of
individual units. As the years go by, keeping the building in good shape becomes more and more onerous.

High rises are costly in other ways, because they can’t be easily renovated, recycled, or retrofitted the way smaller buildings can. The city’s nodes of activity and patterns of land use are continually changing. Warehouses and other small buildings built in the 19th
century are being adapted to all sorts of creative new uses, but high rises are not nearly as flexible and end up presiding over stagnant neighbourhoods while the city’s vitality passes them by.

More troubling are the effects that tall residential buildings have on the social fabric of the city. Many studies have shown that high rise residents have less contact with others in the building than residents of three and four storey walkups and of row housing.
Because there are so many anonymous and usually empty spaces such as stairwells, utility rooms, and parking garages in these buildings, even enormously sophisticated monitoring devices can’t prevent assaults and robberies. Systematic research has shown that the higher the building, the more criminal activity occurs in such spaces.
Because children are captives of their physical environment, they are especially vulnerable to these dangers. No matter how many cafes and drug stores are built at the street level, these social problems within the building persist. Research has even shown that previously well-balanced individuals were more likely to develop neuroses at
higher floor levels.

Outside the building, sidewalk life is weakened by high rises. The extensive security provisions and the distance of residents from the street create barriers to their joining activity on the sidewalks, most of which is not dangerous but rather supportive of casual interaction among neighbours. This interaction nurtures essential informal
networks of support that are necessary to a healthy neighbourhood, once again pointed out years ago by Jacobs. In fact, my own studies have shown that areas dominated by high rise buildings have higher crime rates, no matter what their social, economic, or ethnic characteristics.

We already know how to build extremely compact, mixed use neighbourhoods without going any higher than four or five storeys. There aren’t as many open spaces at ground level (which are usually brutally windy around high rises in any case), but a little imagination shows that greenery, cafes, and shops can all be accommodated in truly exciting ways. Contemporary European cities and some older North American districts have been demonstrating this for years. Tourists flock to such areas because they recognize urban vitality when they see it and wish they had it back home.

A city of high rises, which to us seems so modern, was actually first imagined and sketched by the architect and city planner Le Corbusier back in the early 1920s. After 85 years, perhaps it’s time to develop something that is socially, economically, and environmentally more sensible.

“The costly trouble with high rises,” The Toronto Star, March 28, 2005, A17