Leader comment: The beginning of the end for tower blocks
Their vision has seemed so much like the future for so long that such hyper-urban scenes are part of the atmosphere of films from Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis to this year’s Bladerunner sequel.
Tower blocks were among the first elements of this dream to become a reality, springing up across Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.
But, by the 1980s, people had started to fall out of love with the idea as they became synonymous with poverty, drugs and loneliness.
In announcing it is considering demolishing all of its 48 towers over the next 20 years, North Lanarkshire Council has perhaps finally sounded the death knell for the once-noble idea of “streets in the sky” for much of the UK.
The Grenfell tower fire in London showed what can happen when things go wrong in tall buildings – 71 people dead because of a fault in a fridge-freezer.
However, the council has stressed this appalling tragedy is not actually a factor in its thinking.
Instead, it wants people to start living in town centres once again in the hope of creating a greater sense of community. At a time when the internet has decimated high street shops, attempts to save town centres have largely focused improving the retail “experience” to attract shoppers.
The council may have hit upon a simpler strategy to save our high streets: persuade people to live close enough that actual shops are as convenient as virtual ones.
Other councils will face similar choices as their remaining tower blocks become too old to maintain and replacement housing is required. Streets in the sky were never particularly good at creating a thriving community spirit in the way that streets on the ground can be. And, in addition to creating physical isolation, they also put vertical distance between people and the natural world – be it a garden, trees outside, or the park down the road. We are increasingly realising the importance of nature for our own well-being.
In places where land prices are high, there will always be an incentive to build high, but we are perhaps now heading towards a future in which most people stay in closer touch with terra firma.