It’s time we recognise how harmful high-rise living can be for residents

The burnt-out Grenfell Tower, last June. Image: Getty.

The fire at Grenfell Tower has catapulted high-rise social housing into the public consciousness, in a way not seen since the 1960s. Back then, high-rise tower blocks represented a new vision of social progress. They were greeted with hope and optimism by housing officials, architects and town planners across the UK.

But now, the mood has turned to one of bitterness, anger and fear. Over the years, most of these so-called “villages in the sky” have become concrete containers for society’s poorest and neediest people.

This is not just an issue in the UK. Today, millions of people live in high-rise apartment blocks around the world. In Moscow alone, there are 11,783 high-rise towers, in Hong Kong there are 7,833, and in Seoul there are over 7,000, many of which are residential. Understanding the link between high-rise living and mental health is crucial to protect the well-being of tower block residents across the globe.

High-rise living evokes unsettling fears – residents could be trapped in a fire, or fall or jump from the tower. The sheer number of people sharing a single building can also increase the threat from communicable diseases such as influenza, which spread easily when hundreds of people share a building’s hallways, door handles and lift buttons.

Sharing semi-public spaces with strangers can make residents more suspicious and fearful of crime. Many feel an absence of community, despite living alongside tens or hundreds of other people. And in earthquake-prone countries, residents of high-rise towers face the possibility that their entire building could collapse.

Perhaps most poignant of all is the fear of isolation. During ongoing research into social isolation among older people in the English city of Leeds, residents of high-rise buildings reported feeling lonely and isolated – some were afraid to even open their front doors.


Many of these older residents rely on networks of neighbours, friends and family to help them get around and perform basic chores. One wheelchair user explained how she relied on her neighbour to help her get to the lift and out of the block. If her neighbour is not there, she is stuck.

Living with fear every day means that residents of high-rise housing – and especially social housing – are vulnerable to mental health issues. Psychologists have been investigating this link since the 1970s – a 1979 study based in Glasgow found evidence that high-rise residents were presenting psychological symptoms more often than other housing residents.

Another paper from 1991 compared elderly African-Americans living in high-rise and low-rise buildings in Nashville. The high risers had a higher incidence of depression, phobias, schizophrenia.

The true causes?

But researchers aren’t always comparing like with like. In Nashville, although the residents shared the same ethnic background, high risers were poorer, less educated and had fewer social contacts: all factors which may contribute towards mental ill health.

So it’s difficult to say whether it’s the building itself, or other hardships such as poverty, which cause high-rise residents such difficulties. Yet there is some evidence to suggest that high-rise buildings themselves are actually responsible for some of the harms done to residents.

For example, in Singapore, between 1960 and 1976, the percentage of people living in high-rise buildings climbed from 9 per cent to 51 per cent. During the same period, the per capita rate of suicides by leaping from tall buildings increased fourfold, while suicide by other means declined.

This could be for one of two reasons. Either more people became suicidal and would have found a way to commit suicide by any means – or greater access to tall buildings gave more people a means of killing themselves, which they wouldn’t otherwise have done.

Singapore’s high rise residences. Image: Bernard Spragg/Flickr/creative commons.

The overall suicide rate in Singapore increased by 30 per cent over the aforementioned period but the rate by leaping increased many times faster, which suggests that having more tall buildings leads to more suicides. While suicide rates have been stable for five decades now, jumping from buildings remains a common method for suicide there, as well as in other cities where high rise buildings are ubiquitous – such as Hong Kong, New York City, Taipei City.

Yet high-rise living can have its positives. Roughly four in five Singaporeans live in public housing – almost all of it high-rise. Older buildings are regularly refurbished and most are near to local food markets, parks and sports halls. Some even have sky gardens and rooftop running tracks.

The ConversationAll of these factors can help to create a less stressful environment. What’s more, in Singapore, the residents of public housing are deliberately mixed by income and ethnicity, so that each neighbourhood is reflective of the population as a whole.

This helps to avoid the kind of social segregation that tends to occur in the UK. If this example is followed in other cities across the globe, then living in high-rise towers might not be quite so damaging after all.

Royce Turner, Research assistant and policy analyst, University of Huddersfield and Andrea Wigfield, Director, Care-Connect, University of Sheffield.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.