Can residential tower blocks meet city housing demands?


High-rise urban housing projects have undergone a renaissance in recent times – despite many failed projects from the 20th century that became associated with poverty, the latest generation of structures are designed for luxury.

In cities such as New York, London and Beijing, the majority of new high-rise developments are modern steel and glass skyscrapers, attracting affluent residents both local and, increasingly, international.

The projects are often the work of internationally-renowned architects, and give a boost in status to the cities.

“Politicians and developers [are] seeking to position their metropolis or their project in the global economy by hiring a famous architect who has attracted attention to another city,” said Prince’s Foundation special advisor Hank Dittmar. “The result is a succession of cities becoming architectural trophy rooms with every city collecting its own Hadid, Nouvel, Eisenmann or Rogers.”

Higher profits

As each iconic new tower provides cities with increased status, so the trend towards taller and taller buildings increases.

One57, the first of a new group of New York super-towers to be occupied, houses 90 stories and is more than 1,000ft tall. That made it the tallest residential building in the city – until, a few months later in October 2014, 432 Park Avenue was completed, standing at almost 1,400ft.

Yet this towering development is set to be outdone by the nearby mixed-use Central Park Tower, which upon estimated completion in 2019 will become the second tallest building of any kind in the US, just one foot shorter than 1,775ft One World Trade Center.

“For developers, it makes more financial sense to build a bigger project,” Berggruen Residential CEO Yigal Zemah told Forbes in 2013. “Land is very scarce and to increase profit the only way is to go up.”

Due to approaching these developments as luxury apartment complexes, potential profits are vast, despite the hugely expensive and lengthy process of receiving approval and completing building work. In early 2015 the penthouse apartment in One57, spread over the tower’s 80th and 90th floors, was sold for more than $100m – the most expensive single property sale in New York’s history.

Meanwhile in London, which previously had a relatively low profile across its skyline, high property prices and a stable investment environment led to a number of high-rise residential projects.

In April 2015, London hosted more than 260 building projects of at least 20 storeys, with 70 under construction, 117 with planning permission secured and 76 awaiting planning decisions – and all but eight are primarily residential.

High-rise and low-rise: the ups and downs

Whether the current trend for high-rise residential buildings is a good thing for cities is a point of contention. Those in favour argue that tall developments provide the high-density accommodation desperately needed in crowded cities – and that towers can create a unique atmosphere and facilitate distinctive public spaces at ground level.

“The opportunity to build tall, as with the Leadenhall Building, brings with it the possibility to create grand, 21st century public spaces that could not be achieved with low-rise developments, in the financial context of the City of London,” Graham Stirk of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners told the Evening Standard’s Homes & Property magazine.

But as Stirk notes, context is important. When large towers emigrate from business districts to less tower-friendly city districts, they are increasingly becoming an issue for local residents. In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, local activists led by the More Light, More Power campaign have twice objected to the proposed new residential towers at Bishopsgate Goodsyard – despite revisions from the Hammerson-Ballymore joint venture to reduce the size of the development’s two tallest towers.

Part of the view that high-rise residential blocks have a disassociating effect on communities is based on the fact that many luxury high-rise developments are built with an absolute minimum of affordable flats. This in turn often forces original residents out of the market and can break up existing communities.

An advantage of high-rise towers is their ability to increase urban density, which at higher levels satisfies housing demand and has knock-on effects for environmental efficiency and avoiding suburban sprawl. But creating high-density residential areas is possible with low and medium-rise buildings too, as demonstrated by traditional low-rise districts like Eixample in Barcelona – which houses 36,000 people per square kilometre in buildings rarely higher than six stories.

Meanwhile, high-rise developments do not always offer high-density housing. At One57 in New York, for example, very large and space-inefficient apartments are included to attract the wealthiest buyers, and luxury premises are often bought as investments rather than primary homes, leaving them unoccupied.

Former City of London chief planner Peter Rees noted that in London’s Heron Tower, where he lives, around a quarter of owners hadn’t yet picked up their keys a year after purchasing their flats.

In conclusion

High-rise developments are set to continue as a key part of inner-city housing across the world – but diversity is a virtue for any great city, and low-rise or mansion block-scale projects that give local residents a pleasant sense of human scale should be used along with towers. Matching the scale of a new building to its surroundings is vital.

And local governments and planning authorities should consider that leaving decisions to the free market can put profit margins ahead of optimum housing solutions. Short-term gain at the expense of long-term liveability cannot last forever, regardless of the status of the city.


* This is a version of an article that first appeared on

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