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Debate: Highrise housing

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Should highrise housing be encouraged?

Background and context

Highrise housing is usually defined as a residential building with five or more stories, most of the time encountered in urban or suburban areas. Using technologically advanced construction mechanisms, highrise housing initially emerged in the 1950s and 60s as an ideal solution to the postwar population boom and to the increasing number of people moving into already overpopulated urban areas. Dealing both with the problem of space management and efficiency, highrise housing epitomized the modern lifestyle and the look of the modern city. Depending on the cultural, political and economic environment in which it was built, highrise housing gained significantly different images in different parts of the world. In Western Europe and parts of the USA highrise housing is often associated with welfare projects, immigrants and the poor – with a few exceptions where renovated highrise buildings in the city centre have been transformed into luxury apartments for the rich and single. By contrast, in Eastern Europe highrise housing occupies the majority of the housing market thus including a more mixed population. In Asia, highrise housing rarely carries the same stigma that it often does throughout Western Europe and the USA, being associated with significantly improved living conditions despite shortcomings such as noise, many neighbours and lack of private outdoors space. The debate surrounding highrise housing thus includes many different aspects, from the extent to which highrise housing continues to be a solution to population rise and city living, to the stigma associated with living in a highrise building in certain parts of the world, the safety of old highrise buildings in Central and Eastern Europe, and the refurbishment or demolition of highrise buildings surrounded by crime, poverty and gloomy living conditions. One thing is certain: the appearance of highrise housing has significantly changed the social environment of modern cities affecting everything from cultural traditions, to lifestyles, neighbourhoods and personal relationships. One may say that highrise housing has played an important role in the formation of a new kind of social solidarity or lack thereof. While critiques of highrise housing abound, the question remains of whether this kind of housing can be improved in order to fulfil its initial promise as the housing of the future.

Contents

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Argument #1

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Yes

Highrise housing is often connected to unsuccessful welfare and social programs. Governments have used it as a housing solution for under-privileged groups that could only afford subsidized housing under special leasing or rent contracts. This use of highrise housing unfortunately served to concentrate poverty and other problems often related to poverty, such as crime and drug use, in particular areas. This in turn has significantly affected the housing market by creating so called ‘bad’ neighbourhoods vs ‘safe’ neighbourhoods, affecting everything from property pricing to local investments, employment opportunities and population makeup. One can safely say that the majority of these welfare programs have proven to be disastrous or inefficient at best, thus begging for a different solution: privatization, demolition or refurbishment.

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No

Highrise housing is only connected to welfare programs in certain parts of the world, such as Western Europe or the USA. In other parts of the world, such as Central and Eastern Europe and many parts of Asia, highrise housing was a more or less successful housing solution when faced with the problem of population growth and urban migration. While there are many shortcomings to highrise living, these buildings have played an important role in offering an alternative to the slums and favellas of Latin America, for example. That highrise housing has also been used as a solution for offering support to underprivileged groups is a different question. Few welfare programs have ever proven to be as efficient as private endeavours, yet this does not mean that at least temporarily, they have not been able to provide ‘a’ solution to an otherwise more desperate alternative.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Because highrise housing is so often associated with unsuccessful welfare programs, leading to a higher concentration of the poor, and certain immigrants groups in particular areas, it will always carry a stigma. Disconnecting this type of housing from this negative image has proven difficult even in places where there was a will and funding was available, such as the Netherlands or the UK. Despite name changes, renovations and even privatization or semi-privatization schemes, very few highrise complexes managed to change their negative connotation and include a more diverse population among its tenants. While a few centrally located highrise apartments have been successfully re-branded, the majority remain less desirable alternatives for those who could not afford more.

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No

The stigma of highrise housing has often had little to do with the living conditions within this type of housing: historically, there have always been areas, neighbourhoods and building types associated with poorer populations, and this is unlikely to change, at least in the near future. The concentration of poor and immigrant populations in highrise housing is not necessarily a reflection of the inefficiency or negative social impact of this type of building, but rather a reflection of larger social problems such as inequality and discrimination, which will continue to be an issue independent of the existence of highrise housing or not. Addressing these larger social problems with mechanisms other than housing subsidies alone, along with anti-discrimination campaigns, might help to improve the negative image that highrise housing has earned in certain parts of the world.

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Argument #3

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Yes

The world should slowly move towards safer housing alternatives that have proven to be preferable over time: single family homes or smaller building units that allow for more privacy, creativity and individual freedom. These units have traditionally proven to be the safest, cleanest, and certainly the most aesthetically pleasing housing alternatives. Building more highrise housing will only deepen current problems and possible exacerbate them in the future. As the world is expanding and much of the developing world and transitioning economies are looking for development models (including housing models) one needs to be careful which models are promoted, for if highrise housing is introduced as a solution to slums and favellas, then we may see the problems with which Western Europe and the US is dealing with now, multiplied and deepened by an even more challenging, discriminating and unforgiving social environment.

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No

The world has never had a single model of housing as the housing needs will always be very different, depending on topography, population, and land. Again, solutions need to be considered on a case by case basis, and in some cases highrise housing may be a better solution than favellas, for there are many advantages to it if done properly. Highrise housing can be more efficient when it comes to offering a relatively quick solution for people that do not have a roof over their head. It can be more environmentally friendly as it can save a lot of space and energy, much cheaper to build than independent homes and in many ways easier to manage than the chaotic buildings and complex infrastructure, or lack thereof, that currently exists in slums and favellas. One can also learn from the mistakes that Western Europe and the US made in the past, for example by ensuring that there is sufficient money set aside for maintenance, and that there are job opportunities and shops located near the highrise developments. It should also be remembered that different cultures adapt differently to things such as highrise buildings: traditional families of South Asia have embraced them quite eagerly as a superior alternative to what was available to them before.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Highrise housing has a deep negative social impact both at the collective and the individual level. By limiting living space and access to outdoors private areas that have traditionally played an important role in supporting large families, highrise housing encourages smaller, nuclear and single-parents families, breaking down traditional connections. It also has a deep impact on the individual by putting intense pressure on him/her to compromise, deal with noise, small spaces and lack of privacy. Highrise housing is also not ideal for children and families, breeding conflict, little investment in public spaces, few safe playing grounds and creating spaces that often isolate the individual affecting his/her emotional growth and ability to communicate and relate to others.

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No

Social solidarity, at the level of the collective as well as the individual, is meant to change. Social relations have historically changed over time, and the nuclear family emerged before highrise housing even existed. With or without highrise housing the tendency to move towards the nuclear family would have probably been the same. As for the negative impact that highrise housing has on the individual, pressure, noise and less access to private spaces are the reality of modern living. Because the modern individual is more used to being assaulted by different kinds of stimuli from an early age, psychologically speaking, he/she is also a lot more adapt at dealing with the pressures at hand or taking them as unavoidable inconveniences.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Highrise housing is difficult to manage, whether privately owned, government owned or belonging to a housing association. Bringing together a large and diverse population, different ownership schemes, different needs and, with time, the emergence of structural problems – such as roof leaks, old pipes, elevators, heating, etc – means that problems are often overwhelming, requiring a well organized and skilled administration which is often lacking. Unlike smaller private houses with their individual plots of land, highrises suffer from the tragedy of the commons - critical public spaces and amenities are shared between too many people, none of whom feels enough responsibility for their maintenance and cleanliness. Housing associations often have little or no money to hire good managers, while the governmental bureaucracy is often inefficient and tardy in allocating funds and any means for dealing with these problems. Successful management of such problems often requires private management, which, because of its costs, charges exorbitant rents or coop fees.

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No

Most forms of public housing are difficult to manage. This, however, does not mean that there are no solutions at hand. The key is to be more creative, allow for more input from those who live in these developments and have experienced these problems first hand, and not seek to implement a single ‘successful’ model in all cases. Renovation of highrise housing is often less expensive than building new housing, and when properly done, can last a long time. Management can be streamlined as the necessary lessons when it comes to highrise housing problems should have already been learned. Enough material and research has been conducted on the subject to have offered a series of possible solutions to those who are truly interested in applying them.

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