“Townscapes are changing. The open-plan city belongs in the past – no more ramblas, no more pedestrian precincts, no more left banks and Latin quarters. We’re moving into the age of security grilles and defensible space. As for living, our surveillance cameras can do that for us. People are locking their doors and switching off their nervous systems.”
J. G. Ballard – Cocaine
Our introduction to the contentious issue of the impact of these towers on a town centre came in joining with others in opposition to the Basildon town centre masterplan which will see many new apartment blocks being built. All the change of administration in 2021 from a Labour/Independent Alliance to the Tories at Basildon Council has resulted in is a pretence at watering down of some of the proposals, with an arbitrary height limit of twelve stories on any proposal. A height limit that’s already being challenged by the developers.
The mooted re-development of Grays town centre will unsurprisingly, involve the construction of a number of high rise apartment blocks. In neighbouring Romford, a swathe of apartment towers will Manhattanise what was once a market town, irrevocably changing it’s character. Our newest city on the estuary, Southend, will inevitably see pressure from developers to add yet more high rise towers to the urban landscape.
All of this represents profound and accelerating changes to the way we live. Changes that will not create, stable, cohesive communities. Changes that from the way we see things, will increase social isolation and atomisation. It’s only right that we question why this phenomena is happening and ask who is actually going to benefit from this?
CHANGING TOWN CENTRES
How people shop is changing. A growing number of people are shopping online – a trend that was accelerated by the Covid lockdowns which deterred quite a few people from venturing into their town centres. Our town centres are not going back to how they were in 2019 – whether we like it or not, the changes that have been set in motion are irreversible. The question is – how can our town centres adapt to these changes?
A conversation is needed about how our they will evolve and develop into the future. Some of that conversation will need to address the idea of town centre living – something that in principle, we would support. Not least, because it would bring a bit of life back to our town centres. You only have to go back a century and living above the shop was pretty commonplace. However, how town centre living comes back is a contentious discussion.
As things stand at the moment, it’s the developers calling the shots. So instead of low rise apartment developments that have a decent amount of genuinely affordable homes, come with balconies and are designed in a way that foster a sense of community and belonging, we’re getting towers going up to twenty stories or more. Towers that look and feel they have been imposed on our towns and have no organic or social relationship to the existing communities surrounding them.
WE HAVEN’T GOT A PROBLEM WITH APARTMENT LIVING…
Obviously we understand why a fair few people prefer to live in apartments as opposed to houses with gardens. For a start off, there’s less maintenance to do. Whether you’re young with a busy life or retired and don’t want the hassle of exterior house maintenance and gardening, an apartment is obviously what you need. For commuters having to slog away for eight or more hours a day plus a couple of hours commuting on top, an apartment that’s only a few minutes walk from the railway station is understandably a very attractive proposition. If you’re retired and want to pursue a hobby or enjoy an active social life, then a low maintenance apartment is the ideal solution.
Different needs and possibly, different types of apartments. Ones that are well designed and laid out to foster a sense of community, preferably with some gardens and greenery around the blocks. Ones where the number of storeys remains in single figures with corridor or deck access to facilitate genuine neighbourliness. Apartment living does have a place in urban and suburban living providing the design and build is right. Twenty plus storey hell towers have absolutely no place at all…
WHO ARE THESE TOWERS FOR?
We recently went on a visit to Bristol and travelling out from Paddington on the train, we couldn’t help but notice the clusters of high rise apartment developments that are springing up every mile or so as we travelled through West London out towards Slough. Looking at them brought on a weird feeling of future shock in that towers that look like they belong in a dystopian, Ballardian sci-fi story actually exist and are multiplying.
Apart from a few locations like Ealing and Southall, many of these tower clusters aren’t even in what most people would regard as a town centre. So long as there’s access to a railway station with good links back into central London and possibly a few convenience shops, that’s enough for the developers to make a land grab and throw up some towers.
It’s always towers, never well designed low rise, deck or corridor access apartment blocks sitting in well landscaped gardens. These places look like they’re vertical dormitory blocks for the worker drones, albeit relatively well paid ones who can afford the rent or the purchase price that would make the whole endeavour worthwhile for the developer.
Wake up, swift shower and breakfast, off to work for 8-9 hours, come home, supper, some form of digital entertainment then sleep only to repeat the grim exercise over and over. Mind you, with the shift to homeworking, your fifteenth story tower may well double up as your workplace and if you have an actual, real life face to face conversation with another living, breathing human being, you’ll count yourself lucky.
ISOLATION, ATOMISATION AND CONTROL
Socialising? Entertainment? Vertical towers are atomising by their very design but never mind, there’s the Metaverse coming along soon to take you into whatever virtual reality interaction or fantasy you want to engage with or indulge in.
Given that lockdowns have had a worryingly wide degree of acceptance, whether it’s for disease ‘control’ or whatever other reason the government of the day deem to be necessary, they’re now seen as part of the toolkit of governance. So, your fifteenth story apartment with the fantastic view over the trading parks and railway depots of West London will, come the next lockdown, be your prison cell as you work from home before indulging in some light relief come the evening, courtesy of the Metaverse.
What the long term psychological harm of all this will be, no one really knows. This is the start of a long experiment in future urban living that ultimately, will also be a form of containment and control, albeit a physically comfortable one.
These high rise towers aren’t being built for people on low incomes. For sure, a small percentage may well be set aside for ‘key workers’ such as nurses, coppers and firefighters. They may well find limitations placed on their enjoyment of the facilities on offer in their block to the higher income inhabitants. They may even have to use a separate entrance – dubbed as ‘poor doors’. Their presence is tolerated by the developers as the price they have to pay for the income they’ll get from storey after storey of apartments sold or rented out to higher earners.
These tower dwellers will demand a degree of security and protection from what may well be resentful surrounding communities. This is what Nick Dunn wrote about this separation in a review of a film of the J. G. Ballard novel, High Rise: “…what is certain is that the more screens, gates, meshes and separation that we place between ourselves, the more fractured our social relations, and the more we demonise the weak, the poor and the voiceless.” – Why the dark world of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise is not so far from reality – The Conversation | March 18, 2016.
Opposition to these apartment tower developments has a number of contributory factors. One is that they will lead to a population increase that the supporting infrastructure may not be ready for. We’re talking about health centres, hospital capacity, transport capacity and the like. There are also concerns as to how the incoming population will relate to the existing community.
Then, because it’s always the developers calling the shots with local authorities acting as mere referees, there’s the feeling that planning is something that’s done to us rather than for us. The most visible expression of this is the imposition of unwanted high rise towers in your neighbourhood or nearby town centre. Given the way most ‘consultations’ about these kind of developments are rigged and the seeming impotence of local authorities in managing the process – or their active and enthusiastic compliance with the developers – it’s hardly surprising that people see these developments as an imposition.
NOT FOR THE LIKES OF US!
One of the key strands of the opposition to the rash of high rise apartment towers mooted for Basildon town centre is that apart from a handful of key workers who may get grudgingly housed by the developers, they will do nothing to reduce the housing waiting list in Basildon. As an aside, a list that due to the conditions that you have to fulfil to get on it, is regarded as rigged.
None of these towers are intended to clear housing waiting lists. There’s no profit in it for the developers. They’re being built to maximise revenue from not very large plots of land. These construction of these towers is essentially an act of colonisation. They bring in a new and more affluent demographic to an area. Servicing the needs of the incoming demographic will have an adverse impact on the existing community. The visual appearance of these towers in and of itself is a not at all subtle signal of the colonisation and domination of existing communities.
Getting back to the waiting lists, the type of housing required to clear them will need to be as diverse as the people on the list. It would range from houses with gardens suitable for families through to flats in a low rise bock and if required, some form of sheltered accommodation. High rise towers, even if made available to everyone on the housing waiting list, would not be adequate in any way, shape or form.
PILE THEM HIGH
This refers to the number of storeys a tower will go up to and the amount of money a developer will make from the sale or rental of the apartments they build. There’s a lot of talk about how apartments are an ‘efficient’ use of urban and suburban space. As stated earlier, most people accept the need for well designed apartment developments in the appropriate location with the storey count kept in single figures. They are arguably an ‘efficient’ use of urban and suburban space. The thing is, a well designed eight story apartment block with attractively landscaped surroundings is nowhere near as profitable as a twenty storey tower block. We live in a capitalist system so there are no pr1zes for guessing which kind of apartment development will be allowed to pass relatively unscathed through the planning process. At the end of the day, this is what it’s about – making as much money for the developers as possible.
This is an attempt to get to grips with what the rash of high rise apartment developments mean for us as we enter an increasingly dystopian future. It’s not a comprehensive, academic work for the simple reason that we’re not academics.
The aim of this piece to to try to get people thinking more deeply about the consequences of these developments so that we can better resist them. Obviously, it will take radical system change for us to be able to have a full say in how our towns, cities and suburbs develop and change in the future. The point is to make the links between the system of decaying and degenerate late capitalism we live under and one of it’s physical manifestations – these soulless, dehumanising towers.
There’s this as well: “Ballard’s more extreme scenarios may be in the realm of science fiction or fantasy, but his underlying assertion that the vertical container for living could have a serious social and psychological impact are not so easily dismissed. His decision to focus on a luxury high-rise inhabited by the educated and the wealthy, rather than on the typical tower blocks built for social housing, was perhaps to make the point clearly that it was the design of the building, not the class of the residents, that brought about such a hellish downward spiral of human behavior.” Harnessing the Dystopian Dread of the Brutalist Tower Block – Phyllis Richardson | Atlas Obscura | May 17, 2021.
What is slowly becoming clearer is the role of these towers in bringing about the concept of the ‘smart city’ – one of the key parts of the fourth industrial revolution a.k.a. the great reset that we’re being railroaded into. At a almost instinctive level, people are making the connections between these towers springing up everywhere and the atomising high tech future, partially embodied in the Metaverse, that we’re being told is our future. They realise that these kind of environments are not just atomising and dehumanising – they’re another layer of control and a growing number of people are starting to kick back against that. To put it bluntly, what’s on the line is what it will actually means to be human as we go into the future…