What is bad about high density apartment housing?

I am interested in this literature on housing density because it is a question that has often been looked at as part of enquiries into disadvantage but across the world there are people with significant financial means choosing to live in high density apartments. I think it also opens up a space to think about the role of the environment in how people practice being social beings.

The main reason I started going down this path is because I came across a paper looking at whether or not the number of social encounters in high density apartments are too much for people to manage. This is something that there is some literature arguing for this (eg McCarthy and Saegert 1978), which seemed to be followed by research drawing different conclusions. It does seem that the early work was focused on public housing type situations, while some work has branched out to look at the issue of high density housing in a wider range of neighbourhoods (Churchman and Ginsberg 1984).

That the physical reality of living in a higher density, apartment complex could play into the way you interact with and relate to neighbours. It seems to make sense as a thought exercise that does not even make reference to anything fancy about relationship saturation. Perhaps I can start out by presuming that people do not want to develop a friendly relationship with all people and we certainly do not want just anybody to feel like they can ring our doorbell whenever they want. More people in a building means it is more likely you will have somebody that you feel less inclined to engage with, or at least the threat of there being somebody you do not want to engage with sometime in the near future. The more people passing through means it is more likely neighbourly exchanges would be seen by other people so it may be hard to be friendly with some people but ignore others. Therefore it could be a conscious decision to be friendly, but not too friendly. Of course, running through something that sounds feasible to me does not prove anything. I hope I can find out in my research something about what may actually be happening in some buildings.

One example of ethnographic work that can help in thinking about the role of apartment living in relationships is Clarke’s chapter in Home possessions: material culture behind closed doors (2001). The case studies do not come from a high density high rise building, but they come from multi-story flats on an estate of some size. In one case study the mother links her preference for the children to no longer play in the common areas on the estate to a time when a neighbour’s children stole toys and helped themselves to the contents of the fridge while visiting. She did not want to be taken advantage of.

Another thing about Clarke’s work which fascinated me is Clarke’s strong finding that the apartments did not usually have visitors in them. My own experience of spending time in an area in Australia with a significant percent of public housing was that visiting was central and you could often see a lot of what was contained within the house or flat before you got through the door. I think this provides a good reminder of the fact that when we are talking about ‘poor people’ what they share in common is they fit the criteria that we are using to mark them as poor, they do not necessarily share a ‘culture’. However, it could also be connected to the very different levels of housing density in the two areas, although I would not favour this interpretation.

So perhaps it is important for me not to conflate different densities of public housing together in my note taking. This is reinforced by the fact that less clean streets was something that a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report found in deprived neighbourhoods. However, they were not able to conclude to what degree the difference was or was not attributable to deprived neighbourhoods themselves, and not a property of the fact that these neighbourhoods had high density housing. Of course street cleaning is just one service possibility that is largely created when people live in urban environments. Higher density living means we do need to re-work the way we do things. For example, when I walk past the service entrance of big, fancy apartment buildings I can often smell the stench of rubbish.

There is just one more point I want to make before I finish this rather word-heavy information-light post.

Yesterday a lecturer mentioned that in Paris social stratification played out geographically, but it did so vertically. Generally it was a case of rich people on the ground floor, middle class families in the middle and students in the top floor. He suggested that this lead to a range of informal employment opportunities for students such as baby sitting, house cleaning and car shifting. This sounds really interesting, but I have not had any luck coming up with any terms that may turn up anything written on this… yet!

Churchman, A., and Y. Ginsberg. 1984. The image and experience of high rise housing in Israel. Journal of Environmental Psychology 4:27-41.

Clarke, A. J. 2001. “The aesthetics of social aspiration,” in Home possessions : material culture behind closed doors. Edited by D. Miller, pp. 23-45. Oxford & New York: Berg.

McCarthy, D., and S. Saegert. 1978. Residential density, social overload, and social withdrawal. Human Ecology 6:253-272.


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