In St. Paul's Highland Park, dense housing rumored to come with death and disease

This 135-acre site could one day be filled with people living in tall buildings, a truly disturbing thought to some St. Paul residents.

This 135-acre site could one day be filled with people living in tall buildings, a truly disturbing thought to some St. Paul residents. City of St. Paul

Life in St. Paul pulses to a different beat than its electric neighbor to the west. It’s less urban, more neighborhood-centric, a den of family-oriented working class people living quietly.

So when a decade-long idea to redevelop the site of a former Ford truck factory finally took form as a draft plan for a high-tech, mixed-use urban village with apartments that could be as tall as 10 stories, it unsurprisingly drew vigorous opposition from the folks who want St. Paul to remain just so.

Their chief enemy: density, with all the violent crime and disease incubation that comes with it.

To illustrate the theory, key opponents of the Ford plan, Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul, hosted a PowerPoint presentation on its website that provided examples of how toxic a “concrete jungle” would threaten affluent Highland Park's small-town feel. One image, which caught the ire of Highland District Councilmember Kevin Gallatin, showed Chicago’s long-gone Cabrini-Green Homes, symbol of the mammoth high-crime, high-poverty public housing projects of decades past that were blamed for suppressing the social mobility of the poor.

Howard Miller, an organizer for Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul, declined to say whether the allusion to Cabrini-Green was intentional, but the removal of the entire slide Monday afternoon implies it was eventually acknowledged to be a mistake.

Still, the group’s reasons for opposing high-rises remain the same, regardless of the proposed Ford plan’s intention of luring well-to-do young families that will want to shop and play in a futuristic neighborhood. These, Miller says, are based in a myriad of articles published by the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control documenting the damaging effects of high rises.

The NIH, as it happens, doesn’t provide much evidence for the harm of living in the sky. And there's a big difference between improverished public tenements and what's planned for the Ford property. 

A 1981 study by German researcher Friesitzer Mose, who surveyed doctors tending to tenants of high-rises, found no higher rates of disease. Another from 2011 found that residents of higher floors in New York City and super-dense Asian cities actually breathed fewer air pollutants, which naturally concentrated closer to vehicle emissions on the ground.

Studies from 2013 and 2016 conducted in Switzerland and Belgium found that high-rise residents’ mortality rates and self-reported feelings of general health had more to do with their wealth than how high off the ground they lived.

“One cannot help feeling that general shortcoming (e.g. inadequate town planning, housing planning, workmanship etc.) lead to a hunt for scapegoats,” Mose concluded. “The high-rise building appears to be a rewarding object for such intentions.”

The studies that Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul cites, though equally valid, have less to do with whether it’s unhealthy to live in tall buildings, and more with urbanization on a global scale.

The group refers to a 1995 Centers for Disease Control report on factors related to re-emerging diseases, such as reforestation in America contributing to Lyme disease, broad changes in ocean currents contributing to flare-ups of cholera, and contagion in everyday, high-density settings such as daycares and prisons. They also cite a 2015 NIH article on the challenge of containing emerging infections since the Industrial Revolution, especially in the rapidly developing cities of Asia and Africa.

On crime, Neighbors for Livable Saint Paul points to a 2009 Indiana University study published in the journal Criminology, which concluded that while violent crimes occur more frequently in Indianapolis’ high-density developments and along major streets, those rates are guided by poverty and neighborhood instability.

They cite one additional resource on mental health -- a 1971 article in the Canadian Journal of Public Health by psychologist Daniel Cappon, who had a bit of a dramatic flair. He wrote that the extra effort it takes to get down to the ground discourages high-rise children and seniors from exercising, leading to isolation and “the premature death of our civilization.”

"To me, I have to dismiss that stuff," Gallatin says. "They're making it sound like a Mumbai ghetto or something like that, not a modern development in a modern city that people pay top dollar for." 

He believes it's just resistance to change that breeds heavy demonization of density.

“I know it sounds very judgemental, but when this all started, at first the tone was reasonable. People legitimately had questions, and it wasn’t necessarily accusations. At some point it just went sour, and I don’t really know why that was."