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The Urbanist: is high-rise living unnatural?

High-rise housing gets pretty bad press in Australia. It’s frequently criticised for over-shadowing, generating high-speed winds and destroying streetscapes and views. Skyscrapers have high lifecycle emissions compared to medium density housing and in some instances are associated with mental illness and socially dysfunctional behaviours.

But it gets worse — some observers reckon it’s an unnatural way to live. Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl insists people living above the fifth floor lose their connection with “mother earth” and society below:

I would say that anybody living over the fifth floor ought generally to be referring to the airspace authorities. You’re not part of the earth anymore, because you can’t see what’s going on on the ground and the people on the ground can’t see where you are.”

RMIT academic Michael Buxton also opposes high-rise. He says:

What high-rise does is separate large numbers of people from the street, so we end up with a city that is detached from street life, we end up with a city that is based on enclaves and gated communities.”

This criticism smacks of over-reaching to me. With the possible exception of children, it’s of little consequence for the vitality of life on the street whether you walk down from the third floor, or take the lift from the fifth, 10th or 20th floor. The level you live on has very little to do with whether you drive to work or walk; eat in rather than at a local restaurant; or watch television in preference to going to the ballet.

High-rise developments are in any event likely to be built in locations where residents have good reason to go out and enjoy the street. On average, they’ll be in places with a high density of people and activities close to the front door. For example, architect Karl Fender who lives in Melbourne’s Eureka Tower (his firm designed it) says:

Even though I live on level 71, I’m actually 31 seconds divorced from ground level, and when I hit the ground I’m in Southbank. I have the theatres, I have the galleries, I have the river, I have the gardens, I have the retail, I have all of those facilities.”

I’ve heard it argued (by architects, not evolutionary biologists) that humans haven’t evolved to live successfully any higher than a few storeys from the ground. If there’s any objective evidence for this theory I’d be interested to hear it. I know some races have a genetic vulnerability to high calories diets and/or alcohol, but I’m not aware of a biological aversion to dwelling height.

We haven’t explicitly “evolved” to do lots of things we now take for granted. For example, we didn’t live in cities of four million people or more up until very recently; or travel at 60 km/h on trains; or take antibiotic shots; or use solar energy directly to cook our food; or go to school every day; or … well, most things we do now are “new”.

Yet we can do all sorts of things our distant ancestors couldn’t even conceive of. With some exceptions (eg: we over-consume calories), we usually take steps — like providing water and sewage infrastructure so we can live in cities — to mitigate any clear risks.

It’s true that humans can’t easily make out visual detail at street level beyond a certain height (around the seventh floor for me) but it’s arguable if that’s significant for housing. Now that we don’t build new high-rise social housing for families, it’s surely a matter for residents to decide at what height they wish to live.

I very much doubt that many people who willingly choose to live in high-rise suffer ill effects due to their distance from the ground. Where adverse health consequences have been identified, I expect it’s largely associated with social housing, given the history of forcibly placing households who are at-risk to begin with in buildings they don’t like or that don’t suit their circumstances, like families with young children.

However, the sorts of people who live in new high-rise in Australian cities do so almost entirely by choice. They tend to be comfortable financially and can plausibly elect to live somewhere else closer to the ground if they wish.

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