There are around 390,000 flats in high rise blocks in England, and they weren’t designed for low carbon living. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be transformed into sustainable beacons in our towns and cities.
Tower blocks have huge potential to be resource efficient and better connected, supporting stronger and more cohesive communities. There’s scope for shared low carbon heating systems, solar panels to power communal electricity needs, high quality recycling and food waste collections, increased water efficiency, well-loved green spaces, and safe, well-designed surrounding paths and streets to encourage cycling and walking. And tower block residents can feel a unique and strong sense of community, with the potential to support, engage with, and even run new green initiatives.
But how do we get there from where we are today? Our new study, Towering ambitions, finds that most green living policies have been designed with individual, street properties in mind, leaving tower block residents disadvantaged and missing out on opportunities to live greener, more sustainable lives.
Challenges of high rise green living
It’s all very well helping householders afford insulation and double glazing through the Green Deal, but tower block residents can’t exactly install these measures just for their own flat. Smart meters are great for monitoring and bringing energy use down, and they take the hassle factor out of meter readings. But when all meters are in the basement of a block, communication becomes a bit of a problem. Door-step recycling doesn’t work as collection is costly and leaving items in hallways can be a fire risk.
Beyond the blocks themselves, green spaces, known to help bring communities together as well as increase health and wellbeing, are often damaged or even locked. And whilst we are being encouraged to walk, cycle and take public transport more, it is off-putting if your nearest cycling and walking routes are dark or poorly signed, you’ve got no space to safely store your bike, and the nearest bus route is a long walk away and over-crowded.
Compact, smart places to live
So what’s the solution? Lots of new tower blocks are being built with tackling these issues in mind, but to transform our cities into sustainable, compact, smart places at the same time as meeting our housing needs, we need to make the most of what is already available. There’s plenty that various actors – national and local government, energy companies, housing providers, building managers and even residents themselves – can do.
Energy efficiency opportunity
In our report we make a number of recommendations to make tower block living more sustainable. Whilst there are opportunities across energy, waste, water, transport and green spaces, we’ve found that the greatest potential for change is in addressing heating and energy challenges – making the most of the Energy Company Obligation for whole block retrofit, setting minimum energy efficiency standards for social housing, as is planned in the private rented sector, and seizing the opportunities to feature tower blocks in low carbon district heating networks.
Through our research, which has included workshops with tower block residents and interviews with stakeholders across the country, we’ve learned that the potential and the enthusiasm to transform existing high rise housing into sustainable homes is there. We won’t get there overnight, but with sufficient support and better targeted policies and initiatives, tower blocks could yet be taking their place alongside the new high rise housing that is increasingly seen as the cutting edge of urban living.