Flats and high density housing

Posted on 09 September 2007 2 comments

Note: Some of the information in this post is taken from an exhibition I visited a few weeks ago at the Tate Modern in London called Global Cities. The exhibition examined urban and social issues in ten large cities around the world and was full of fascinating facts.

According to the United Nations (UN), 50% of the world’s population now live in cities compared to just 10% over a century ago. By 2050, this figure is expected to rise to 75%.

As more people flock to cities, so pressure on housing grows. In the UK, London’s population is on the rise – although growth is modest compared to other cities. According to the UN, London ranks 360th in the list of fastest-growing cities in the world.

In housing, density refers to the number of people or households that occupy an area of land: the greater the number of people, the higher the density. A common but incorrect assumption is that high density housing equals high-rise living.

In his book, An Introduction to Urban Housing Design, author and architect Graham Towers writes:

“Housing of similar densities can be built in different forms. Individual houses with gardens can be built to quite high densities, while the highest desirable densities can be achieved with flats of relatively modest scale in ‘perimeter block’ form.

High-density residential areas have clear advantages. They are more economic to service; they have a lower impact on the environment; and they provide a wide choice of facilities within easy reach. Above all they make transport systems of high energy efficiency possible.”

Many people in London probably feel the city is already overcrowded, but London is actually a relatively low-rise, low-density city when compared to many other cities. Almost half (46%) of Greater London consists of open and recreational space. In Los Angeles, only 10% of the city is allocated to green open spaces and in Tokyo, less than 5%.

High density housing can be achieved through a mixture of different housing forms, the two most obvious forms being the terraced or row house, and apartment blocks. The flats don’t have to be built in high-rise form either; they could be relatively low-rise blocks of five or six storeys with their own communal space.

Communal space can never match the appeal of a private garden – one reason why apartment blocks are seen as unattractive by families with children who want some outdoor space for their children to play. Their are some possible design solutions. For example, top floor flats can be designed to include a private roof terrace and flats can also be designed as duplex units (i.e. spread over two floors), giving a more house-like feel. But there are still other issues to contend with.

Blocks of flats, particularly high-rise ones, are often associated with high service charges – another disadvantage to flat living. A lift becomes a necessity once a block has more than four or five floors but that also adds to the maintenance cost of the building. However, even if we limit the number of floors to four and dispense with a lift, a family with young children are unlikely to want a top floor flat (even one with a roof terrace) if they have to climb four flights of stairs.

It’s important that all residents of a flat have some private outdoor space, which for most will mean a balcony. Balconies should ideally be wholly or partially recessed so residents feel they are not being looked upon from neigbouring flats from above or to the side (and to minimise intrusive noise).

Shared outdoor communal spaces can also present problems. Residents of a block may all have different ideas about how they would like to use the space. A family may want their young children to play. Some residents may want to invite friends for socialising, while others may simply want a quiet outdoor area to relax. With all these competing wants, residents can easily become unhappy with how communal areas are used if it disturbs their own privacy or peace and quiet.

Which brings us to our next concern: noise from neighbours and the potential lack of privacy. There’s no reason why new build flats can’t be completely soundproofed. Soundproofing is not rocket science, neither is the cost prohibitive if considered thoroughly at the design stage. I’m fairly certain that touting the soundproof qualities of a flat would be a strong selling point that many potential buyers would find reassuring.

Of course, as soon as you open a window, noise enters from many different directions. Depending on the proximity of neighbouring balconies and open windows, you may even hear your neighbour’s music/TV/conversations. This can be minimised to some extent by sufficient spacing of adjacent windows in neighbouring flats and by designing the layout of apartment blocks such that the living room of one flat is not adjacent to the living room of a neighbouring flat.

Realistically, we have to expect some noise when living in high-density, urban environments, but thoughtless or inconsiderate design can exacerbate noise problems rather than reduce them.

In his book, A Pattern Language, architect Christopher Alexander argues that buildings designed for living in, should be limited to a maximum of four storeys.

“In any urban area, no matter how dense, keep the majority of buildings four storeys high or less. It is possible that certain buildings should exceed this limit, but they should never be buildings for human habitation.”

Alexander goes on to argue that high rise living can be socially isolating:

“High rise living takes people away from the ground and away from the casual, everyday society that occurs on the sidewalks and streets and on the grounds and porches. It leaves them alone in their apartments. The decision to go out for some public life becomes formal and awkward; and unless there is some specific task which brings people out in the world, the tendency is to stay home, alone.”

The arguments sound quite convincing, but I’m not sure I agree entirely with the four storey limit. I think there are also cultural and social factors that contribute to whether high-rise living in tall tower blocks are a success or a failure. For example, in Britain, we tend to associate high-rise living with run-down council tower blocks or large monolitic estates. It’s easier to recall failures in high-rise housing than it is to think of more positive examples. Tower blocks comprise a very small proportion of Britain’s total housing stock which means that the majority of us are not accustomed to high-rise living.

The quality of high-density housing varies enormously across the globe. In some countries like Hong Kong and Singapore, high-rise living is a necessity. We can learn a lot about high-density housing, not just from our own success and failures, but the experience of others too.


Lokendra Balasaria

11 November 2008 07:23 GMT

High rise – high density cannot be justified by just talking about the height of buildings – new architectural designs make creation of variety of social spaces above ground also possible. probably the way cruise ships are designed can be an example of the possibility of creating human environment/s where land is not immediately accessible. I teach at an urban planning institute and we are conduction a lab on such a concept. requesting for further comments on my e-mail…will help in making our lab more substantive.

A. Hussein blog author

12 November 2008 22:29 GMT

Hi, perhaps these free publications from CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) in the UK might help

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