Housing isn't just a battle between terrace and tower

There's far more options available than Policy Exchange make out.

Policy Exchange's report calling for tower blocks to be demolished and replaced with streets of terrace houses and low-rise flats "that people actually want to live in" has made a rather big splash.

My initial reaction was that the report was unfairly slanderous to the reputation of vertical living. Conclusions about tower blocks from the 50s, 60s and 70s are generalised to be about all such buildings, while the worst of terrace housing is overlooked. It is true that many of the post-war towers are in dire need of refurbishment, and it may well be better to tear them down and start again. But their failure has as much to do with being built on the cheap, abandoned by councils and then unmaintained for half a century as it does to do with them being tower blocks.

And there is an element of expertise in building tower blocks which should not be overlooked. Quite simply: we've got better at it since then. Whereas terraced houses are much the same as they were 100 years ago, even affordable high-rise living is nearly unrecognisable compared to that practiced post-war.

But more, I want to highlight the false dichotomy that the report creates. Arguing about tower blocks versus terraced streets ignores the fact that there are a huge number of alternative styles of living.

For instance, most British cities are alarmingly low rise. That's not just that they have no tower blocks or skyscrapers, though; it's also that whoever decides the number of stories a building should have seems to count like Terry Pratchett's trolls (one, two, many, lots). There's room for buildings which aren't the tower blocks of yore, but do still fit a huge number of people in a small space, allowing more than just the rich to experience the benefits — walkability, culture, shorter commutes — that inner-city living offers.

And take a look at places like the German town of Vauban, which houses 5,500 people in a square mile — with no cars allowed. That's not terraced living as Policy Exchange would imagine it, but it mixes some of the best aspects of tower blocks (high density, big shared spaces, and not having to walk particularly far to reach transport links) with those of terraces (like being relatively flat and open).

The Swedesh village of Jakriborg does this even better. It houses over 1000 people in an area a third of the size of a Maryland park-and-ride car park, by mixing the small streets and car free living of a town like Vauban with houses which are five or six stories high.

There's been a lot of changes in city and suburban living since the 1950s. Treating town planning as a battle between 1950s-style homes and 1900-style ones ignores that there are more options available than ever before in the year 2013.

Jakriborg. Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.