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Sunday, July 23, 2006

MEDIA MIX

The many hazards -- especially for kids -- of living the high life


Some news stories make you laugh and some make you cringe. If you live in an apartment you may have done both while reading the July 13 story in this newspaper about an employee of Schindler Elevator K.K. getting trapped in a Schindler lift in the same Tokyo residential building where a teenager was killed by a different malfunctioning Schindler lift in June. The irony is definitely rich, but we cringe because we use elevators all the time. Many of us, in fact, literally can't live without them. However, as illustrated by another tragic news story, the hazards of high-rise living are not always technological in nature.

On May 23, a 9-year-old girl in Miyagi Prefecture fell to her death from an upper floor of her apartment building. Because the accident occurred two months after another well-publicized incident involving a man who allegedly threw a 9-year-old boy from the 15th floor of an apartment building in Kawasaki, the police approached the girl's death as the possible result of foul play, perhaps a copycat crime. But according to the Mainichi Shimbun the police seem to believe it is an accident. Residents of the building said that in the past they had scolded the girl for playing on the railings of the upper floors.

Kids can be expected to do reckless things, but you would think they'd be too afraid of heights to climb over balcony railings. According to physician Masaaki Oda in his book "The Danger of Raising Children in High-Rise Condominiums," kids who grow up in tall buildings fail to acquire a normal fear of heights. Toddlers develop depth perception based on their own physical circumstances, and living high above the ground can distort that perception.

The common playground slide, for example, was designed to act on a child's fear of heights by letting the child succumb to gravity gradually. Fear of heights is natural, but it is not entirely instinctive. Oda carried out experiments with children raised in high-rise environments and found that they tend to be much more fearless of high places than are children who were raised closer to the ground.

This kind of vertical existence also changes the traditional idea of "going outside to play," even in cities. The hallways and elevators that connect high-rise apartments to terra firma exert their own intimidating force. Oda found that housewives who live in high-rises plan their days so that they need to go out as little as possible or not at all. Children will thus also be less inclined to go out, since their mothers won't insist on it.

Oda discovered that many children who live in high-rises didn't know other children from their own building unless they met them under other circumstances, such as at school.

Oda talks about an Osaka residential high-rise that built a park-like environment on one of its floors. It was almost never used by children. The problem seemed to be that kids had to go out of their way -- in effect, get off an elevator at a specific floor -- to go to the park. Usually, children use parks because they come upon them accidentally and see other children already using them. Eventually, the park-like floor became just another place for residents to leave their bicycles.

In the 1960s, the Swedish government started building affordable high-rise housing and then changed its mind when it was discovered that women who lived on upper floors were more likely to suffer from depression. In Britain and America, luxury high-rise condos are status symbols for the rich, but multistory public housing is infamous. Hallways and elevators are notorious settings for crime.

In Japan, developers are now trying to attract families to "super high-rise" housing, which has been booming for the past several years.

Earlier this month, the weekly magazine Aera ran a special feature about "High-rise Condominiums that are Good for Raising Children." The wording of the title is important. It doesn't say that the condominiums are good for children, only that they're good for "raising." In other words, they're good for parents.

The features that give these self-contained villages an advantage over other high-rises are those that make parenting easier, such as day-care services and proximity to "good" schools. Oda says that this kind of planning leads to insulation and stratification. He tells stories of people living in high-rise condos who don't like it when their kids start hanging around other kids who live in rental units.

Oda's book is based on research he did in the '90s, when the tallest condos were not nearly as tall as they are now. Some of the buildings recommended in the Aera article go as high as 40 floors. According to a recent Asahi Shimbun series on high-rises, about 500 residential buildings of 20-or-more stories comprising 116,000 housing units are now being planned or are under construction throughout Japan.

The high-rise boom was created by developers who took advantage of loose zoning laws in city centers to stack residential housing on smaller plots of land. These companies stress the idea that living in a tower is like living in a hotel -- one Osaka condo has even renamed its building superintendent the "concierge" -- but most people don't raise families in hotels.

It seems we're headed for a new kind of social and psychological divide -- ground people vs. sky people. I live on the 24th floor of a public housing complex and all-day long I can hear the little boy upstairs running back-and-forth as if trapped in a cage. Occasionally, his parents punish him in a novel way: They lock him out on the veranda, where he screams in terror. At least he's developed a fear of heights.



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