Archive for the ‘Mental health’ Category

High rise living: Bad for health?

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Accompanying the general US dislike of density is an almost automatic rejection of high rises by many communities. Though thousands (millions) live in high rise apartments, many (most) Americans think they are at best undesirable, at worst, unhealthy.  Part of this assumption most likely is a result of one of the supposed lessons resulting from the US public housing program.  High rise housing failed as housing for families appears to be one of the legacies of that experience. A reassessment of that program will be the subject of another post.  But many planners and urban advocates also dislike high rises because they believe they leave residents disconnected from the street.  Is this true?  Does it matter?

Like so much else about current planning thinking, at least part of this idea is derived from the theories of Jane Jacobs.  For those of you unfamiliar with Jacobs, Her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is treated with almost biblical reference by many planners and people who love cities.  And rightly so, for Jacobs is responsible for dramatically changing how people view cities and the urban revival we have seen in the US since the 1970s is at least partly her doing.  In the book Jacobs severely criticized Le Corbusier and the then dominant modernist idea of placing skyscrapers in parks.  The modernist goal had been to maximize access to fresh air and sunlight. The result was that streets were rendered empty, neighborhoods were unwalkable and cities devoid of life.  Jacobs main priority was promoting connections between residents and streets.  She loved the daily flow of shopkeepers, mothers, children, families, public servants, and visitors on the streets of Greenwich Village.  She thought these close connections made streets safer (when her book was released, Lewis Mumford criticized Jacobs for being obsessed with crime) and the constant surveillance would help make children behave and enforce social norms.  In Jacobs’ ideal streetscape, the buildings were multistory walkups with shops on the first floor.

Jacobs, at least in her earlier canonical works, did not advocate against all high rises, just those that were not located along streets.  But as her ideas were interpreted and implemented in the decades after they were introduced, it has become a mantra that high rises are bad because they disconnect residents from streets.  It is said no one should live more than five stories above the ground.

These ideas are hard  to assess because they are difficult to quantify.  What exactly is a disconnect from the street?  Does it mean that one cannot look out one’s windows and see someone doing something bad on the street?  A variant of this disconnect idea is that mothers can’t watch their children from their apartments if the unit is located above the fifth floor.  This raises some interesting questions.  Do mothers routinely let their children play outside and sit by the window watching them?  Would the ability to do so encourage parents to let their children play on busy sidewalks?  Could the disconnect be quantified by measuring time spent looking out the windows at the street?  Could it be knowing one’s neighbors or the number of neighbors one knows?

The bigger problem is figuring out what exactly this disconnect causes.  Hypertension? Stress? Depression?  Whatever may be the consequences of a disconnect from the street, it does not appear to be health related.  There is the idea of “nature deficit disorder”  the idea that too great a disconnect