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Sky-High Homes For The UK’s Regional Cities?

September 18, 2007

How many people reading this article actually live in a city centre? How many readers live in a high-rise apartment? And how many of these readers are aged 30-50? My guess is that fewer readers live in high-rise than have views on them; the evidence certainly shows that most people past a certain age choose to live in suburbia or out-of-town. So is the commercial emphasis on city centre ‘executive’ apartments sustainable?

One young woman I know, a lawyer, lives with her husband in an a sixth floor apartment in Manhattan, New York. Another, a business consultant, until recently lived in a fourth floor apartment near the commercial centre of London, but has just moved to a town house there. My husband and I live in a suburban semi in Liverpool, and have done for many years.

Economics and demography
Economics and demography are everything in housing. People choose where, ideally, they would like to live, by reference often to their family requirements.
Many people, as we all know, are happy to live in high-rise city centre accommodation before they have children, but in the UK, and especially outside London, most would prefer to make their family home in suburbia – as indeed I did.

Other countries, other ways
In other countries the suburban option may be both less available and less often preferred.
Some young couples in the UK, like the ones I know in London, can resolve their requirements by choosing a town house near the city. Others elsewhere, like the couple in New York, don’t feel the necessity to abandon high-rise living as quickly.

Why the difference?
There is less of a tradition in the UK of high-rise living except perhaps, and tellingly, in tenements and council housing.
Other cities such as New York have pressures on land which mean that over time they have adjusted to high-rise.

Sim city for real
Have you ever played Sim-City? In New York space issues have resulted in the creation almost of Sim-City tower living.
Everything is there – the shops, the amenities – including clinics, nurseries and gyms, the work places, and then, above them, with different access, living accommodation, roof gardens etc.
And in the same block as the building will be the link to efficient public transport….

Sustainable living?
These sorts of arrangements make it possible for everyone to live In Town, and many people except those with growing children to prefer to.
It’s time and, importantly, energy efficient to live in, e.g., Manhattan, and the experience is generally holistic. The experience addresses what’s needed in a reasonably sustainable way.

London
Looked at like this, we can see that London is a half-way house between Manhatton and Liverpool.
The UK overall is a very densely populated island, but still only about 5-10% of it is city-space.
Nonetheless, land is very scarce in London, and London has some of the attributes required to make it a preferred city living option. And that city is working hard to improve its offer.

Liverpool
Liverpool, however, is still losing population, albeit at a reducing rate. And we have enough houses but not always ones people like.
Unless the ‘core offer’ on Liverpool city-centre living improves rapidly, I can see little prospect of sustainability in tower-block living here.

Live-ability
We haven’t, yet, factored in the amenities to make Liverpool city-centre ‘people friendly’, as is only too obvious on any Friday night.
For me therefore high-rise in Liverpool, in the brave new world of ‘executive’ apartments, is not where I would currently put my money as a developer.

Quality of experience
Fashion quickly becomes fad and then old hat when the quality of the experience is lacking.
I’d advise investors to think about how NY or London do things – maybe even live there for a while – before they go any further with high-rise in Liverpool.

High rise and high income?
Even a decade or two ago in the UK high-rise still often (except in, say, parts of Edinburgh and London) went with low-income.
Now, conversely, high-rise and high-income seem to go together; which is fine in London; but not elsewhere.

Real executives for ‘executive’ apartments?
Liverpool should put a hold on more high-rise executive apartments until it has a more high-income, young, executives in genuinely sustainable jobs to live in them.
I’d say, let put some functional flesh, some real amenity, on the skeleton of Liverpool’s developing infrastructure before we go for fashion in housing.

Moving forward sustainably
* Let’s first make Liverpool city centre safe and people-friendly.
* Let’s use professionals to develop the city who have experience of family life and of city centre living, to help us see what more needs to be done.
* Let’s explore what we can do to integrate services, amenities and enterprise with ‘livable’ space.
* Let’s make Liverpool’s city centre sustainable and let’s reverse our population decline before we go big-time in Liverpool for high-rise…. especially if it has more style than substance.

This is an edited version of a talk given by Hilary Burrage as part of a debate in Liverpool during Urban Design Week, hosted by Taylor Young, on 18 September 2007. The event was entitled ‘High rise living getting you down!?’ Almost all speakers in the debate agreed with the position taken here.

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