Highrises are not the answer

Highrises are not the answer

Dr. Trevor Hancock

25 June 2019

699 words

An important contributor to our large ecological footprint is urban sprawl, an energy and resource-hungry form of development that we cannot afford. It also is bad for our health, in a myriad of ways, a topic I explored in my column for 22nd November 2017.

According to the first book on the topic, in 2004, those health impacts include higher rates of physical inactivity and obesity due to driving rather than active transportation; respiratory and cardiovascular disease due to air pollution; more traffic injuries and deaths resulting from car-dominated transportation; and impacts on mental health and social wellbeing.

Obviously, both from a health and an environmental perspective, we have to stop urban sprawl, concentrating all further growth within the existing urban boundary. But that can run into resistance from neighbours, who may not want infill developments. This tends to push new developments into more concentrated areas, and one response is high-rise development. That certainly seems to be an increasing response in Victoria.

But high-rises come with their own health problems, especially for children. In 2007 Dr. Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist and a Professor at UVic, published a review of the evidence on the consequences of living in high-rise buildings. While acknowledging that such research is difficult and that there are many other factors to consider, such as socio-economic status, family type and building location, he nonetheless concluded:

“the literature suggests that high-rises are less satisfactory than other housing forms for most people, that they are not optimal for children, that social relations are more impersonal and helping behavior is less than in other housing forms, that crime and fear of crime are greater, and that they may independently account for some suicides.”

In particular, he noted, “No evidence we could find shows that high rises are good for children”.

So what is the answer? There are in fact a number of good options. The first is what Todd Litman, an internationally recognised transport and urban development expert based here in Victoria, suggests: “moderate-density housing in walkable urban neighbourhoods”. Moderate and even high density, we should recall, characterises some of the world’s most popular cities; think of Copenhagen or Paris. As to walkable, Melbourne has adopted the principle of the ‘20-minute neigbourhood’, “giving people the ability to meet most of their everyday needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or local public transport trip of their home”.

To make such housing livable we could use courtyard housing, a traditional form that creates shared space where residents can gather, but that nonetheless separates the public and the private realms of housing. In a 2014 report for Abbotsford Council, social planning consultant Cherie Enns noted such housing “creates a safe and nurturing place for children and youth, and provides a social connection”, which suggests it can address the problems that highrises fail to address.

Moreover, Litman suggests, such housing should be built everywhere, an approach he called the 1.5% solution. In a July 2018 commentary in the Times Colonist he pointed out that Victoria’s population grows at 1.5 percent annually and suggested that the city’s neighbourhoods should all grow by that amount, which in practice would mean between 25 and 125 new units every year, some of it infill, depending on the neighbourhood, surely not a huge challenge?

Moreover, these forms of housing would also be more affordable, in part because clustered housing is more energy and space efficient, and in part because people would not need a car, and certainly not the 2 or 3 cars a suburban family may need.

While these new developments could be in residential neighbourhoods, we could also ‘mainstreet’ existing commercial and transit corridors by building 3 to 5 storeys with commercial on the ground floor and a mix of residential and offices above. The stretches of Tillicum and Hillside alongside or opposite their malls come to mind; this could create the sort of lively urban street that we find attractive in so many European cities.

So a choice between urban sprawl and high-rise towers is a false choice; both bring health problems with them, neither is the answer to our urban challenges. Instead, we need to re-create the urban village: livable, affordable, sustainable and healthy.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

 

Dr. Trevor Hancock

25 June 2019

699 words

An important contributor to our large ecological footprint is urban sprawl, an energy and resource-hungry form of development that we cannot afford. It also is bad for our health, in a myriad of ways, a topic I explored in my column for 22nd November 2017.

According to the first book on the topic, in 2004, those health impacts include higher rates of physical inactivity and obesity due to driving rather than active transportation; respiratory and cardiovascular disease due to air pollution; more traffic injuries and deaths resulting from car-dominated transportation; and impacts on mental health and social wellbeing.

Obviously, both from a health and an environmental perspective, we have to stop urban sprawl, concentrating all further growth within the existing urban boundary. But that can run into resistance from neighbours, who may not want infill developments. This tends to push new developments into more concentrated areas, and one response is high-rise development. That certainly seems to be an increasing response in Victoria.

But high-rises come with their own health problems, especially for children. In 2007 Dr. Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist and a Professor at UVic, published a review of the evidence on the consequences of living in high-rise buildings. While acknowledging that such research is difficult and that there are many other factors to consider, such as socio-economic status, family type and building location, he nonetheless concluded:

“the literature suggests that high-rises are less satisfactory than other housing forms for most people, that they are not optimal for children, that social relations are more impersonal and helping behavior is less than in other housing forms, that crime and fear of crime are greater, and that they may independently account for some suicides.”

In particular, he noted, “No evidence we could find shows that high rises are good for children”.

So what is the answer? There are in fact a number of good options. The first is what Todd Litman, an internationally recognised transport and urban development expert based here in Victoria, suggests: “moderate-density housing in walkable urban neighbourhoods”. Moderate and even high density, we should recall, characterises some of the world’s most popular cities; think of Copenhagen or Paris. As to walkable, Melbourne has adopted the principle of the ‘20-minute neigbourhood’, “giving people the ability to meet most of their everyday needs within a 20-minute walk, cycle or local public transport trip of their home”.

To make such housing livable we could use courtyard housing, a traditional form that creates shared space where residents can gather, but that nonetheless separates the public and the private realms of housing. In a 2014 report for Abbotsford Council, social planning consultant Cherie Enns noted such housing “creates a safe and nurturing place for children and youth, and provides a social connection”, which suggests it can address the problems that highrises fail to address.

Moreover, Litman suggests, such housing should be built everywhere, an approach he called the 1.5% solution. In a July 2018 commentary in the Times Colonist he pointed out that Victoria’s population grows at 1.5 percent annually and suggested that the city’s neighbourhoods should all grow by that amount, which in practice would mean between 25 and 125 new units every year, some of it infill, depending on the neighbourhood, surely not a huge challenge?

Moreover, these forms of housing would also be more affordable, in part because clustered housing is more energy and space efficient, and in part because people would not need a car, and certainly not the 2 or 3 cars a suburban family may need.

While these new developments could be in residential neighbourhoods, we could also ‘mainstreet’ existing commercial and transit corridors by building 3 to 5 storeys with commercial on the ground floor and a mix of residential and offices above. The stretches of Tillicum and Hillside alongside or opposite their malls come to mind; this could create the sort of lively urban street that we find attractive in so many European cities.

So a choice between urban sprawl and high-rise towers is a false choice; both bring health problems with them, neither is the answer to our urban challenges. Instead, we need to re-create the urban village: livable, affordable, sustainable and healthy.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

 

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