Reconsidering High-Rises – “These people do not want a neighbourhood. They want a locked gate, a gated community in the sky.”

How many times should we say it? Don’t build residential towers. Don’t make or let people live in them, least of all families. They are antisocial, high-maintenance, disempowering, unnecessary, mostly ugly, and they can never be truly safe. No tower is fireproof. No fire engine can reach up 20 storeys, period.
Towers are again raising their heads across the urban landscape, creatures of egotistical architects, greedy developers and priapic mayors. We gasp at their magnificence, their extravagance, their sheer height. Yet like Grenfell they are alien creatures in a British city. They do not converse with their context, they thumb their noses at it.

There is no need to build high at all. The developers’ cry, that cities must build high to “survive”, is self-serving rubbish, the more absurd when their towers are left half-empty. The principal reserve of residential space in British cities is derelict land and the under-occupation of existing houses. Unless we wish to build at the squalid densities of Mumbai and Hong Kong, high buildings require space round them and extensive ground servicing.
Hence the most “crowded” parts of London are not around towers but in eight-storey Victorian terraces. The boulevards of central Paris have treble London’s residential density without towers. Westminster council’s aborted Paddington Pole, at some 60 storeys, had fewer housing units than the high-density street housing suggested by its opponents. The tall blocks wanted by Boris Johnson for Clerkenwell’s Mount Pleasant estate are at a lower density than the low-rise town houses proposed by the consultants Create Streets.
Besides, people are entitled to the city they want. When in the 1980s Liverpool’s Militant movement asked Everton’s inhabitants what should be done with their towers, the reply was pull them down and give us back the streets. It was done.
Today’s surge in tower building – some 400 are in the pipeline of London’s uncontrolled property market – is driven by a quite different demand. It is from high-income migratory couples and foreign buy-to-leave investors. These people do not want a neighbourhood. Their social life is dispersed. They want a locked gate, a concierge and a pied-à-terre with a view. They want a gated community in the sky. When I moved from a tower flat to a street flat, I encountered a completely different city, exchanging what amounted to a self-catering hotel for a community of neighbours.

– image and excerpt from ‘The lesson from Grenfell is simple: stop building residential towers’, Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 15 Jun 2017

13 responses to “Reconsidering High-Rises – “These people do not want a neighbourhood. They want a locked gate, a gated community in the sky.”

  1. 6117 Fleming: appropriate that the main photo for this freak show is a bar. You’d have to be blind drunk and rich to buy this pile – a masterpiece of bad taste on the Dumfries Bog. No view; no laneway house; no Skytrain. Repulsive pretentious fake. Painful to look at. Listed at $2.998M.

  2. Many insights in this article. “They do not converse with their context, they thumb their noses at it… a self-catering hotel.”

    Towers are an eyesore and, in my opinion, diminish the value of surrounding low-rise property, including any SFHs within view. Who wants to live in the shade of these monstrosities? To have hundreds of eyes looking down on them?

    The article mentions the Grenfell fire. Horrific. Another risk is falling glass. Does everyone trust in the building quality of all these speculative junk boxes? That temperature fluctuations and the hand of time will not pry them free one day? There’ll be guillotines on the streets.

  3. So basically the author is on one hand complaining about lack of family friendly units, and yet on the other hand blasting developers for building high rises with larger size units which would be family friendly? The only way an 8 storey Victorian terraces would have higher density than a 30 storey condo is if the units are smaller and/or it’s spread over a big lot. It’s just simple math.
    I bet people probably complained about those Victorian terraces back in the days when those first went up.

    And densely packed small Victorian terraces is not a fire hazard? Last time I checked, concrete & steel don’t burn and catch fire that easily. For a fire to engulf an entire concrete building to go up in flames, there must be some good reason.

    Maybe the author should visit some modern high rise complex / development in Chinese biggest cities and see how it’s done properly. They have a much more community feel than the condos in Vancouver. But then, those were build as mini-communities from the get go, rather than simply a tower here, 2 towers there, with elevators only accessible to your floor.

    • “It’s just simple math.”

      Did you read the statistic the author provided re: the relatively high density of Paris, with its total lack of towers? How does that square with your simple math? Tall buildings require significant space around them and “ground servicing”, as the article points out. Space that low-rises do not. As for China. It’s ghost cities are a creepy abomination. What a waste of resources.

      • Hey Ninja, didn’t you say that infrastructure can be built and people will naturally flow to the lower cost of housing in places where the new infrastructure are built. Then if that is the case, how the hell did the ghost cities appear in a country that has much worse price to income ratios in its biggest cities? Wouldn’t its citizens abandon beijing and shanghai for these ghost cities as surely they are cheaper?

      • Lyin’ Brian thinks he’s caught me in a trap of logic. He doesn’t understand that:

        – Healthy urban expansion is organic. It progresses outward from existing centers, in increments that are reflective of shifts in demand and population. Viable cities are not built wholesale in the middle of nowhere. Who would want to be the first to move to a ghost city. C’mon, bring the fam! No thanks. This is a central planning fail.

        – China’s ghost cities are not intended, or at least fully intended, for people to inhabit them in the first place. They are a product of China’s credit boom and desperation to report “growth”. Corrupt officials extend public funds to construction companies who buy a bunch of raw materials and hire a bunch of workers and get rich and give the officials kick-backs. The country posts fantastic growth, proving the savvy economic stewardship of the country’s leaders. A make-work project. Bound to crash.

      • So, if the organic expansion of cities is so inevitable, what has caused the real estate in the center of some of china’s biggest cities to rise so significantly? Surely, they could just move 2 hours outside of the city cause we know construction is happening there too.

  4. I share in everyone’s disdain of condos. That is one of my pet peeves. I have never and will never own a condo unless the land value dictates it is worth it (and most of these 20 storey towers obviously are not). I don’t like owning something that I have no control of the supply. Also, we are in an earthquake zone, if the big one hits, what happens to those who are 30 floors up? But I can see why people need to build them for density purposes.

  5. High-rise condos are hell, but supremely profitable to developers, and often to flippers. Here at ground zero of the leaky condo crisis, it’s hard to believe people buy these things. But they buy them sight unseen – not even a hole in the ground. When the developer starts to build, and all the units have been pre-sold, where is the incentive to maintain a high standard. Every corner cut, to save a buck, is cash in the developer’s pocket.
    People should take some time and google Condo Hell, or Faulty Towers Toronto. Falling glass; high maintenance fees; psycho strata governments; dogs; smokers; noise … It’s absurd that people line up to buy these units without the possibility of due diligence and recourse, but agonize over reviews of five dollar burgers, or coffee.

    • [VancouverSun] – Risky mortgages, shadow bankers threaten Vancouver housing market’s stability

      …”In China, “linkages between the banking and shadow banking systems are also becoming more complex and opaque, increasing the underlying credit risk,” the Bank of Canada’s December 2016 risk report says. “The experience of the 2007-09 global financial crisis showed that financial stability can be threatened by vulnerabilities originating in the shadow banking sector.”

      As a result of the flood of money pouring from Mainland China into Vancouver real estate in recent years, some financial experts say they believe Canadian banks are directly exposed to shadow lending in China and the risks of so-called “ghost collateral” — meaning collateral that may not exist or is used continuously to secure loans for multiple borrowers.
      Postmedia confirmed that Canadian banks are allowed by the federal regulator, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, to accept collateral from China to secure real estate mortgages in B.C.

      “OSFI does not dictate what type of collateral (federally regulated banks) can accept,” spokeswoman Annik Faucher said. “Whether the borrower is foreign or domestic, OSFI (allows) financial institutions to compete effectively and take reasonable risks.”

      One U.S. hedge fund manager, who did not want to be identified, said: “We all know that the ghost collateral is a huge deal, and we all know that the shadow banking and other Chinese influence in Vancouver is profound. The issue it that the ghost collateral ends up re-hypothecated and laundered. So by the time it shows up in Vancouver, it will likely just look like a rich Chinese cash buyer with a suitcase of money.”…

  6. 5520 Ormidale: four years ago this block had a dozen houses; now it’s Wall Centre Central Park. This unit was bought as a pre-sale off plan for $607,007 – a fascinating number – that the buyer chose to tack on seven lousy bucks to elbow out someone else with a competing offer. Now listed at $1.015M – quite the return for minimal carrying costs.

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