David Coveney

Taller buildings let us design better towns

I lived in a range of places as a kid, partly because my father was a bit of an itinerant who didn’t know what he wanted in life, other than that I mustn’t live with my mother. Go figure.

Eventually I got to settle down with my grandmother, but in the process I learned a lot about life as a child in different places. Where I felt safe and where I did not.

I did not feel safe in large council estates surrounding cities. I did feel safe in a caravan park. I did not feel safe in a city centre. I did feel safe in a built up part of a large city, living in an apartment block.

Right now I live in a mid-sized house, with a decent garden, in the town of Widnes. It’s nice. I genuinely think Widnes is a very lovely place to live in. Where I am, I have easy access to nature, pleasant walks, parks, a GP, a train station, shops and am not too far from a major hospital. It’s getting close to the ideal 15 minute neighbourhood and I’d say it’s one of the better planned areas I’ve lived in. It’s higher density than some old neighbourhoods I’ve been in, but way lower than others.

But it’s not sustainable. It was built on countryside. Soon more houses will be built. These houses will be between 90m² and 150m². Not that big, really, and they’ll take a fair chunk of land up.

Meanwhile, I can think back to a place that I really enjoyed living in as a kid in Spain. It was rented by my father, so it wasn’t unaffordable, and it was bigger and nicer than any house I lived in here in Britain. It was clean, I didn’t suffer asthma there… almost perfect. And within a short walk we had bars, restaurants, a bodega, and sports facilities. I loved it. I could play safely in the playgrounds with friends, and even went to school there as we had a primary school on site!

Here’s a snip from Google Maps.

As you can see it’s a big old building. I estimate there are between 400 and 500 apartments, varying in size from approximately the three bedroom 90m² apartment we lived in and the larger end apartments which I believe are about 140m².

The caravan I lived in with my grandmother can be seen here although in other pictures it seems it’s been knocked down:

Let’s have a think about housing density here, however.

The caravan park I lived on, including internal roads but not the road to the caravan park used about 320m² per home. Some were more densely packed, some more loosely, but it’s a fair approximation. My current house sits on about the same, funnily enough. The apartment block, however, uses about 100m² of land per home and includes playgrounds, two swimming pools, three tennis courts, a basketball court, shops, bars and more! Use the slider below. Both images are at exactly the same zoom level, and see how 400+ homes compares with about 200 homes for facilities and space use. Our towns could be half the size they are, and rammed with leisure facilities, all at lower cost.

Halsnead Park in Whiston with approximately 210 homes Club del Mar in Alicante with approximately 400-500 homes

Why don’t many British people live in apartments then?


That’s it. One word. Due to systemic issues in how the UK treats and manages high density housing, we’ve ended up with a situation where there is very little trust in large apartment buildings.

We have miserable stories like The Decks in Runcorn, where residents have been waiting a decade for resolution and have felt locked in their unsellable apartments.

Historically there have been a number of disasters often down to poor design of buildings so that if something bad did happen, people died. Grenfell is the classic disaster.

By Natalie Oxford – https://twitter.com/Natalie_Oxford/status/874835244989513729/photo/1, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59913134

You had this tower block with a single stairway, no decent quality fire extinguishing system built in, flammable cladding. So many people were let down by the way this country treats high density housing. It was a disaster.

Meanwhile, when I visited family in Poland I noticed there were three stairways in the apartment block – the central one and one at each end of the building. Each corridor also had fire doors at each end, with security access, making it safe but also giving people plenty of options for escape. At the bottom you had a playground, sports facilities, and nearby a park and woods along with good access to public transport and very close shops.

High density housing makes living easier and nicer. You don’t have a garden to tend constantly, and you get a decent amount of space for the money because you’re not handing over a pile of money to wealthy landowners.

But we can’t get from where we are to where we should be without addressing these systemic issues. Meanwhile, we can’t be denying young families genuinely affordable, quality housing. So that means we keep building on land that really shouldn’t be built on. Because we’re scared of towers. And I understand why.

We can build better neighbourhoods, with better facilities, and better lifestyles. It’s possible. I’ve seen how it’s done in other countries. Having family in Spain and Poland, and friends in many other countries has taught me a lot. Being poor up to the age of about 25 has also taught me that we can’t foist middle class solutions to working class problems either. That got us the Southgate estate. It stank of piss.

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