Bristol has a higher prevalence of poor mental health and higher suicide rates than the national average. In recognising this, Bristol City Council has launched Thrive Bristol, a ten-year programme “to improve the mental health and wellbeing of everyone in Bristol with a focus on those with the greatest needs”.
Thrive Bristol will focus on prevention and early intervention, and aims to remove the stigma of mental ill health as well as improve services. Public, private and third sector organisations are being asked to work together to improve mental health and wellbeing in the city. Housing is included in a list of themes to be addressed by the programme.
All of this is to be welcomed.
But the current mayor’s desire to “build higher” and deliver “an exciting skyline that reflects a bold and ambitious city” is problematic. He has linked higher buildings to the provision of thousands of homes. However, if we are aiming to build healthy communities, the evidence is against high-rise.
Numerous studies indicate residents of high-rise blocks experience more stress and mental health difficulties than those living in streets or low-rise accommodation, and death by suicide is higher.
Research shows fewer friendships and less sense of community among high-rise residents. High-rise buildings are more expensive to maintain. The corridors, lifts and stairwells are difficult to supervise. Communal areas are more likely to be vandalised and suffer anti-social behaviour.
Studies have found children living in high-rise accommodation suffer more stress and hyperactivity, go outside less and spend more time playing alone or in restricted play. If children do go outside, they are harder to supervise, and levels of crime committed by children are higher in multi-storey estates.
The problems are not simply related to low income – multi-storey housing is linked to poor social outcomes, even when socio-economic conditions are the same. But problems can be more challenging for people with money worries.
Research in Glasgow looked at the effects of high-rise living in social rented housing and found problems with community cohesion, sense of belonging and trust in neighbours. Compared with other forms of social housing, high-rise occupants were less likely to feel a sense of safety, retreat or privacy in their homes and less likely to feel empowered as a community.
Of course, there are people in high-rise estates who look after their homes and the wider environment, build good relationships with their neighbours, and create positive communities. But they must work harder to achieve this than people who live in streets of houses and low-rise buildings. And the stress can take its toll.
This evidence has influenced housing policy in Glasgow. Gorbals tower-blocks have been systematically demolished and replaced by New Gorbals – an impressive high-density development providing low-rise accommodation with a range of tenures.
Meanwhile in Bristol, the mayor’s enthusiasm for tall buildings seems to have triggered a flurry of planning applications for housing developments with tall towers and property developers are pushing their luck about how high they might go.
This is in danger of undermining the aims of the recently launched Bristol Housing Festival, which is said to be “recapturing the purpose of housing and how we create healthy and resilient communities that enable a city to thrive and grow”. High-rise is not the solution.
Councillor Nicola Beech, cabinet member with responsibility for spatial planning and city design, recently quoted the renowned health minister Nye Bevan: “We shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build. We shall be judged in ten years’ time by the type of houses we build.”
I sincerely hope Bristol’s current administration, some of whom seem to be focussing on numbers, will heed those words – not just for their own reputation, but for the sake of those who live in the properties arising from their policies.
Dr Suzanne Audrey is a senior research fellow in public health. Before becoming an academic, she was a community development worker in socially disadvantaged areas of Bristol and Glasgow.