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I must have been seven or eight and was being taken to Birmingham on the train. As the train entered the city fringes I remember very clearly passing a huge forest of high-rise flats. I now know this was the Castle Vale estate and there must have been well over thirty towers. They were standing ethereal above the haze of a misty morning; at once beautiful and forbidding. As a child from the country they were the epitome of urban living; glamorous and sophisticated. They were my fantasy. I wanted to live somewhere like that. 

That train journey was in the very late seventies when the development was a little over ten years old; relatively modern in housing terms, but by that stage the estate had a reputation for crime and deprivation that was far from the glamour that youthful me imagined. It was designed as a solution to urban deprivation; a massive overspill estate on a former airfield accommodating 20,000 of the cities least advantaged residents. 

Unwittingly I was living the vision of the planners. From the safe distance of the railway this estate had an awe-inspiring beauty stimulating the imagination. But that was the closest middle-class kids like me were ever going to get to it. The real story for those living there was one of vandalism, crime and squalor compounded by poor maintenance and ever diminishing services. Since then, this and similar estates in every major British city have gradually been demolished. Only two blocks at Castle Vale now remain amid the replacement low-rise development because schools were incorporated into the structures and demolition was too complicated. The standard of living has improved and it is now regarded as a model of community-led regeneration. 

Most commentators now see high-rise housing estates as a huge mistake born out of the ceaseless optimism of modernist sixties planners who had an idealised vision of an urban utopia which was ultimately defeated by human nature. The estates were laid out paying great attention to visual aesthetics to reflect that fashionable post-war idea of what the future might hold but with less thought to the wind tunnels and eddies they created. Going almost unnoticed was the fact that these were homes to thousands of people; these were where people actually lived. The inhabitants were the poor and the vulnerable; the elderly and disadvantaged; this was where disaffected youths congregated in stairwells and objects were thrown from high windows; where lifts broke down and weren’t fixed and as they became older crime and anti-social behaviour increased making them ever less desirable. For all their architectural splendour this type of high-density communal living is best removed from the housing stock, but it would be wise to remember they were built in response to specific problems. 

The danger here is that the economic realities which produced these huge estates are back with us today. The competing interests of a desperate need for additional housing and a powerful conservation movement; both equally valid could yet focus developers on the advantages of large scale high-rise development to make the best use of limited space. The signs are there. Modern blocks are getting taller and wider. Initially most are intended for first-time buyers but invariably they are becoming buy-to-let after a few years. Occasionally even very tall residential towers are springing up across London and other cities marketed as desirable new concepts in urban living which is exactly how the original estates came about. How long will it be before we see a twenty-first century Castle Vale trumpeted as the solution to all our housing problems? The post-war slab sides, flat tops and regimented rows may be a thing of the past but how much better will living conditions be with amorphous design and air-conditioning?

 

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