March 9, 2008


A high-rise that's raising blood pressure (LISA GRAY, 3/04/08, Houston Chronicle)

The high-rise would change the neighborhood socially, too. It's not that poorer residents would replace richer ones, or that the neighborhood has never hosted apartments: The Ashby high-rise would replace Maryland Manor, a modest low-rise complex whose denizens include Rice grad students. The high-rise would almost certainly command higher rents.

The social change would come with the building itself. Last year, Architectural Science Review published a survey of studies about the social and psychological effects that tall buildings have on their occupants. University of Victoria psychology professor Robert Gifford examined studies conducted over the past 50 years; he found little good to say about skyscrapers.

When researchers control for demographic and other quality-of-life factors, he wrote, most people found high-rises less satisfactory than other housing forms. Social relations were more impersonal in a high-rise, and high-rise occupants were less likely to engage in "helping behavior." They were also more likely to suffer crime.

In dry academic language, Gifford depicts a pointy-toothed skyscraper-monster.

Gifford didn't mention a study by Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth — probably because they're in economics, and he was examining the softer social sciences. For a paper they published in 2000, Glaeser and Sacerdote looked at high-rises' effects on political participation and crime.

On the phone, Sacerdote explains that high-rise people tend not to be as connected to their communities as people who live in houses or low-rise apartments. People who live in high-rises don't have to deal with irritations like sewer problems or road construction, he says; their building manager does that for them.

So it's not surprising that high-rise people are less likely to join a neighborhood association or become involved in local politics. Examining survey data, Sacerdote and Glaeser found that high-rise people were almost exactly as likely as house people to vote in a national election — but 17 percent less likely to vote in a local one. They're less likely to feel that a city is theirs.

To study high-rises' effects on crime, Glaeser and Sacerdote harvested data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports and controlled for factors including city size, victim's income, victim's race, victim's age and whether the high-rise was part of a public housing project. They found that, all other things being equal, living in a high-rise had no effect on the likelihood that you'd suffer a crime inside your home.

But the crime numbers showed a big difference outside, on the street. Living in a high-rise made you far more likely to be a victim of auto theft or robbery.

Such buildings have been useful to statists who prefer the population to be atomized and dependent on the bureaucracy rather than on each other.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2008 12:42 PM


Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 9, 2008 4:11 PM

This is all well and good, but it doesn't justify the Mayor trying to rush out an ordinance to stop this development when the developers bought the property with the understanding they could develop it this way, and satisfied all existing city requirements to begin building -- all because certain affluent constituents raised holy hell with the Mayor and demanded he jump (which he did).

He's had to back away from his initial plans slightly, because there have been regulatory takings issues raised, but a bad ordinance is still almost sure to result from this mess, and Houston will be the worse for it.

Incidentally, it's fairly hilarious that the limousine liberals who live in the surrounding neighborhoods and demanded action to stop this dense development are the same sorts who continue to demand that non-dense Houston build light rail all over the place (well, all over the place except for their centrally located but still non-dense neighborhoods). So, which competing value is more important -- a dense urban core that might one day justify rail, or an urban core consisting of expensive single-family homes with people who have theirs, and would prefer that everyone else look elsewhere for their piece of the urban pie?


Posted by: Kevin Whited at March 9, 2008 4:54 PM

Yes, it does. Property rights are just a means. The end is a decent society.

Posted by: oj at March 9, 2008 8:52 PM