When it comes to land development, Americans famously dislike two things: too much sprawl and too much density. Over the past 50 years, the pendulum swung sharply in the direction of spread-out, single use, drive everywhere for everything, low density development.
Now the pendulum is swinging back. High energy prices, smart growth, transit oriented development, new urbanism, infill development, sustainability concerns: are all coalescing to foster more compact, walkable, mixed use and higher density development.
The pendulum swing is both necessary and long overdue. Additionally, there is a growing demand for higher density housing because of demographic and lifestyle preference changes among boomers and young adults. The problem is that many developers and urban planners have decided that density requires high rises: the taller, the better. To oppose a high-rise building is to run the risk of being labeled a NIMBY, a dumb growth advocate, a Luddite — or worse.
Buildings 20, 40, 60 even 100 stories tall are being proposed and built in low and mid-rise neighborhoods all over the world. All of these projects are justified with the explanation that if density is good, even more density is better. Washington, D.C. is just the latest low- or mid-rise city to face demands for taller buildings.
Yet Washington is one of the world’s most singularly beautiful cities for several big reasons: first, the abundance of parks and open spaces, second, the relative lack of outdoor advertising (which has over commercialized so many other cities), and third a limit on the height of new buildings.
I will acknowledge that the “Buck Rogers”-like skylines of cities like Shanghai and Dubai can be thrilling — at a distance. But at street level they are often dreadful. The glass and steel towers may be functional, but they seldom move the soul or the traffic as well as more human scale, fine-grained neighborhoods.
Yes, we do need more compact, walkable higher density communities. But no we do not need to build thousands of look-a-like glass and steel skyscrapers to accomplish the goals of smart growth or sustainable development.
In truth, many of America’s finest and most valuable neighborhoods achieve density without high rises. Georgetown in Washington, Park Slope in Brooklyn, the Fan in Richmond, and the French Quarter in New Orleans are all compact, walkable, charming — and low rise. Yet, they are also dense: the French Quarter has a net density of 38 units per acre, Georgetown 22 units per acre.
Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean’s book Visualizing Density vividly illustrates that we can achieve tremendous density without high-rises. They point out that before elevators were invented, two- to four- story “walk-ups” were common in cities and towns throughout America. Constructing a block of these type of buildings could achieve a density of anywhere from 20 to 80 units an acre.
Mid-rise buildings ranging from 5 to 12 stories can create even higher density neighborhoods in urban settings, where buildings cover most of the block. Campoli and McLean point to Seattle where mid-rise buildings achieve densities ranging from 50 to 100 units per acre, extraordinarily high by U.S. standards.
Today, density is being pursued as an end in itself, rather than as one means to building better cities. According to research by the Preservation Green Lab, fine grained urban fabric -– for example of a type found on Washington’s Capitol Hill, the U Street Corridor, NOMA and similar neighborhoods — is much more likely to foster local entrepreneurship and the creative economy than monolithic office blocks and apartment towers. Perhaps cities like Washington, should consider measuring density differently. Instead of looking at just the quantity of space, they should also consider the 24/7 intensity of use. By this measure, one block of an older neighborhood might include a community theatre, a coffee shop, an art gallery, two restaurants, a bicycle shop, 10 music rehearsal studios, a church, 20 apartments and a couple of bars, and all with much more 24/7 activity and intensity of use than one block of (much taller) office buildings on K Street.
In addition to Washington, St Petersburg, Russia; Basel, Switzerland; Edinburgh, Scotland and Paris, France are just a few of the hundreds of cities around the world where giant out-of-scale skyscrapers have been recently proposed in formerly low or mid-rise historic settings.
The issue of tall buildings in historic cities is not a small one. City after city has seen fights between those who want to preserve neighborhood integrity and those who want Trump towers and “starchitect” skyscrapers. Prince Charles, for example recently criticized the “high-rise free for all” in London which he said has left the city with a “pockmarked skyline and a degraded public realm.” Today, skyscrapers called the “Shard” and the “Gherkin” loom over the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and other famous landmarks.
Whatever one thinks of Prince Charles, there’s no question that he has raised some important issues about the future of the built environment. These include:
- Does density always require high rises?
- Are historic neighborhoods adequately protected from incompatible new construction?
- What is more important — the ability of tall buildings to make an architectural statement, or the need for new buildings to fit into existing neighborhoods?
- Should new development shape the character of our cities — or should the character of our cities shape the new development?
I love the skylines of New York, Chicago and many other high-rise cities. But I also love the skylines of Washington, Charleston, Savannah, Prague, Edinburgh, Rome and other historic mid- and low-rise cities. It would be a tragedy to turn all of these remarkable places into tower cities. Density does not always demand high-rises. Skyscrapers are a dime a dozen in today’s world. Once a low rise city or town succumbs to high-rise mania, many more towers will follow, until the city becomes a carbon-copy of every other city in a “geography of nowhere.”
Edward T. McMahon is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. This article was previously published on citiwire.
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