Although the subtitle of his new book is It’s not where you live, it’s how you live, Hugh Mackay thinks one place people aren’t meant to live is in high-rise towers. Last week he was quoted in The Daily Telegraph:

“Towering high-rise living is becoming more common in Parramatta, but famed social researcher Hugh Mackay says it is detrimental to social wellbeing.

“His words come just weeks after Parramatta Council called for a no-fly zone that will allow buildings up to 500 metres to be built in the CBD …

‘That is a big mistake,’ Mr Mackay said. ‘In 100 years we’re going to look back on all of this and say, “That was an error, this is not how people are meant to live”.'”

Mackay says medium-density housing — “terraced town houses or small unit complexes” — should be preferred as it would avoid the problems of high rise.

His warning comes at the same time as the Committee for Sydney is calling for a stronger role for “Sydney’s second CBD” and advocating infrastructure to reduce the journey by train between Parramatta and Sydney CBD to 15 minutes.

The idea of a building in western Sydney rising “up to 500 metres” in height will probably scare quite a few Daily Telegraph readers, but it’s a remote possibility. There are no buildings in Australia that come close. The tallest building in the country, Q1 on the Gold Coast, is 323 metres. Melbourne’s Eureka Tower is 297 metres.

The tallest building in Parramatta at present is B1 Tower; it’s 90 metres high. Indeed, the tallest office or residential building in Sydney is Chifley Tower, which, at 244 metres, is at the current height limit for commercial buildings. Even Sydney Tower is only 309 metres.

There’s a proposal for a 336-metre residential tower in Parramatta, Aspire Tower, that’s at the height limit for Sydney. It is, of course, only a proposal.

I suspect the newspaper is being mischievous in raising the prospect of 500-metre buildings. But regardless, there are a couple of problems I have with Mackay’s arguments against high-rise residential towers.

Mackay claims that high rise “is not how people are meant to live”; that’s a silly and reactionary argument.

It presumes there’s some objective truth about all the ways we’re authentically and naturally supposed to behave. It presumes moreover that there’s the possibility of consensus on the topic.

It’s a poor guide for contemporary policymakers because it’s the sort of claim that can be said about practically everything modern humans do, like living in cities, flying in planes, using contraception, or catching peak-hour trains.

The other problem is the claim that high density discourages social interaction; that’s just plain wrong. High-rise residents run across their neighbours in corridors, elevators, in the car park and in the foyer, just as they do in low-rise developments.

In fact, in some ways they have more opportunities for interaction. They also meet fellow residents at the shared facilities, like barbecues, gyms and pools.

High-rise developments are also more likely to be located within or close to activity centres with lots of adjacent ground-level activity. Their size means they can add significantly to street life and help create and sustain it.

And because they make shared decisions through the body corporate, residents have a reason to interact at a more meaningful level than mere glances in the hallway. This contrasts with new terraces, where residents are more likely to have private entrances and individual title.

I think designers and planners are prone to give too much weight to the putative benefits of casual interactions between strangers (as distinct from acquaintances), but, if anything, I think high rise provides more opportunities, not fewer.

There’s demand in a large and vibrant city like Sydney for a range of housing types. The sort of medium-density housing advocated by Mackay has an important role (e.g. for families who want private open space at ground level, or who want more rooms).

Two- and three-storey terraces aren’t a realistic option in down towns that are growing, however. Residential towers have a place too (e.g. for singles and couples without dependents, who place a higher value on location than on private space). Towers are the inevitable commercial outcome when there’s:

  • A small area where lots of activities want to locate;
  • It’s subdivided into multiple small sites in individual ownership; and
  • Each site has a lengthy price and zoning history.

There are potential problems with high rise over-shadowing, and ground-level wind effects that must be managed with great care. But the idea that towers are somehow unnatural for humans, or that they discourage human interaction to a significantly greater extent than other housing forms, is just silly.