When you picture your dream home, there’s probably a door with a letterbox, a fenced front garden, and there may, or may not, be neighbours either side of you. The dream of home-ownership, synonymous with your own slice of land with bricks and mortar, is a quaint idea that’s been fed to us over the years through traditionalist Hollywood movies and family-life sitcoms. But living under your own roof may not be the idyllic vision it promotes. From long commutes and inefficient energy usage that tallies up on your utility bills, the heavy burden of living semi-detached is compounded into a two- or three-storey carbon footprint. Now, with a population rising as our affordable housing nosedives, perhaps the rosy idea of your own back garden is no longer as picturesque as it was once thought.

It feels obvious; sustainable living seems more attainable in a two storey, one-family occupancy house with a garden; where you could rig up a water butt to conserve resources, be exposed to less pollution, and generally be closer to green things. But living in ‘shires with fewer amenities and people is responsible for a far higher environmental impact than in the city. Urban sprawl, when our built up human-curated spaces expand into the natural environment, accounts for massive environmental and social costs. When cities expand outwards, they root up land that accounts for flood barriers, agricultural farmland, and natural habitats. Though these ‘out of town’ locations seem better for us, idyllically separated from the bustle, sirens, and crowds, these low-density areas are one of the largest causes of greenhouse gas emissions because of their distant location. The stretch between homes and workplaces widens, so roads carve through the landscape to make way for our increased number of cars and with it, pollution. 

As more and more of our green spaces are taken over by ambitious housing developers, replacing habitats, walks and greenery with more and more ‘two up, two down’-s, our disruptive push for urbanisation reaches further into the once unspoilt environment. Swathes between massive urban cities and smaller built-up areas are relegated to a mess of industrial parks and Persimmon home complexes. The answer to preventing this encroachment of our kind on the natural spaces left is to grow upwards. By building taller on our existing built-up spaces, we can maximise our land usage and minimise our impact on other spaces. But choosing density over sprawl, while more efficient in practice, is still seen as a risk to our lifestyles, because in the UK when you combine ‘tower’ with ‘block’, it means something quite the opposite of progress.

As peddled to us by cult British films like Top Boy, Kidulthood and Attack the Block, the UK’s residential high rises are seen as unfortunate remnants from the middle of the last century’s push for the high life. High-rise tower blocks are now synonymous with poor quality construction and crime-ridden estates, far from the social integration projects for which they were proposed. At the other end of the spectrum, glossy sky-scrapers in affluent areas house elite and luxury flats just as antagonistic as the tower blocks.  This stark failure of the UK to get these spaces to appeal to anyone between these tiers of society is almost as failed as their alternative: Hundreds of thousands of (barely) affordable homes squeezed into falsely variegated cul-de-sacs that are poorly made and with little more than an inch between the car door and the wall. These new developments are plopped onto any available space, without infrastructure, schools, shops, doctors surgeries, or environmental consideration.

While the densely populated spaces of cities have often presented the case for this rural living, the most environmentally considerate way to live is within close range. City living allows our amenities to be shared efficiently, to save energy, and limit our use of space. Keeping our needs in close proximity from work, to entertainment, to shelter, decreases our need for polluting vehicles and extra space, while resources like water and energy don’t have to travel as far to get to us.

Having our abodes built vertically rather than sprawling into the habitats of our neighbouring species allows for a host of sustainable technologies that are not compatible with detached, or even semi-detached housing. Essential services and utilities can be easily distributed from central hubs in the building, making climate control, water and energy access more straightforward and more efficient. Having heating controlled centrally via a main boiler allows power to be evenly distributed throughout the block, as heat moves around the building rather than escaping from all four walls and the roof as they do in a conventional detached building. Water can be saved as fewer pipes hooked up to more homes are less vulnerable to leakage. Towers can be efficiently designed with sustainable technologies in mind, with geothermal heating and photovoltaic panels to do the heavy lifting. Waste collection and recycling can be effortlessly sent down chutes, streamlining the tactical management of colour-coordinating wheelie bins that we have to do currently. And with a large population to account for, rather than the long trips out of town for work, shopping, or entertainment, high-rise living is often supplied with public transport just outside.

Though the practical theories of vertical complexes make sense; cheap utilities, safer communities, efficient use of resources, and less intrusion into the natural environment, the physical presence of a high-rise in front of our windows immediately slashes the positives. Concerns about the obscuring the character of the area and of green vistas limit the feasibility of accommodation skyscrapers. These are similar challenges to other sustainable innovations like wind turbines and solar panels. But like these similarly environmentally beneficial developments, the short-term view of nature before the catastrophic scenes of an apocalypse is a spectacularly short-sighted vision. A tall, dense city is significantly kinder to the environment such people are desperate to relish than the same citizenry spread across the countryside.

In the UK, flats have never been a tenure of aspiration, with their sight reminiscent of council estates or six-figure salaries. But cities around the world have cultures that hold apartments in high-rises in the same esteem as our revered individual front lawns. With a growing urban population demanding more space, cities are now being forced to develop ways to accommodate. With the vast majority of Hong Kong’s island taken up with mountainous rock, the city has grown vertically, most of its population live in high-rise apartments. In Canada, even where there is an abundance of land, there is a growing move towards living in apartments rather than stand-alone houses. Between the 2011 and 2016 census in British Columbia, there was a 1.4 per cent drop in the number of people living in single-detached homes, while the number of people living in buildings taller than five storeys rose by almost a quarter. Even in the land of the ideal white-picket fence and neighbourhood barbecues, Americans are favouring a sky-scraper view and a walkable commute.

Our European neighbours are big proponents of apartment-based living; in Switzerland, over 60% of people live in flats, but the preference is not specific to limited land mass: Spain has over 65% of their citizens in apartments and Germany over half.  The European continents penchant for high-rise living can be explained by their focus on the quality of living spaces. It’s far easier in these countries to come across apartments with spacious living space, high ceilings, and well-considered community spaces for families and individuals. Yet over in the UK, even newly built flats are of questionable quality, with cramped quarters and limited storage space. On average, the Brits confined living spaces are 37 metres squared smaller than Italians and almost 9 metres smaller than the French.  Such poor housing records in the UK creates an inevitable cycle of low uptake on newly built apartment complexes, a lack of profit means less investment in the subsequent developments, and thus our continued expansion moves horizontally rather than vertically, resulting in an expensive and unsustainable housing market.

Moving upwards rather than along is proving to be the best social and environmental solution for people today, and in the years to come there may not be many alternatives. If our city sprawl and growing population continue, 3 million square kilometres of the planet will be engulfed by our urban expanses. However, two-thirds of this urban ear-marked land is currently some of our most fruitful agricultural lands. It’s at this point that our unwavering progression towards urban development, population, and production could meet a detrimental clash. While living above and below our neighbours rather than beside may impede on a conservative idea of your own garden for an ornamental rockery, perhaps receiving a lower energy bill and knowing you’re not complicit in the destruction of our few remaining natural areas, may be enough to help you sleep soundly at night.

One thought on “It’s time our cities grew up

  1. Ah, this is a tough sell for Americans although I totally agree. Where I live in Central PA, they pave over the most fertile, unirrigated farmland in the country to build housing. 😩 We need to return to balance otherwise the natural disasters will only get worse.
    Thanks for this post. 😉


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