A Very High Density Future for Cities

Architect Peter Weingarten discusses the importance of high-rise buildings, and why the future of cities will be very high density.

A studio director at Gensler, Weingarten argues that the concept of urban density needs to be rethought at a grander scale.

"When people talk about urbanization they use very different benchmarks. My definition of urban life has a very high density. For me, urban isn't 8-12 stories; its 30-50.

We need vertical buildings to activate the public realm with people, to create dynamic street life in cities, to populate transportation systems and to ensure the vitality of retail and other life style programs. How many people are realistically served around a transit station? Without the proper density these systems fail."

Full Story: Can Super Tall be Super Green? Part 2

Comments

Comments

How Much Density Is Needed?

"For me, urban isn’t 8-12 stories; its 30-50. We need vertical buildings to activate the public realm with people, to create dynamic street life in cities...."

A transparently false claim. Go to traditional urban neighborhoods with 6 to 8 story buildings, and you will see that their public realm is full of people and of dynamic street life.

Charles Siegel

This architect is a fool.

This architect is a fool. Mass transportation systems can be sustained by neighborhoods populated with single-family detached one story housing, if they are properly oriented around transit stops. I live in a neighborhood of six story apartment buildings. There are sixty thousand people per square mile, and I can assure you that not only is there sufficient traffic and use of every type of infrastructure, but the subway lines that do serve this neighborhood are packed beyond capacity. You can have fantastic street life with coherently laid out spaces in neighborhoods with two or three story densities.

Agree w/Charles

I agree with Charles on this one.

I recall reading somewhere that 90% of the buildings in Manhattan do not exceed 6 stories. Does Manhattan not have "dynamic street life?"

Global perspective

This debate on urban density is missing the point a little. Nobody is suggesting that New York or Chicago should pack up its suburbs and move back into the city. But the reality is that almost 200,000 people are urbanizing on this planet every day i.e. moving from rural to urban, predominantly in China, India, Brazil etc. That means that, as a global species, we need an ‘extra’ city of 1 million inhabitants built every week to cope with this urban influx. If those developing cities follow the American horizontal model (dense downtown urban core + a massive every-growing horizontal suburb) then the infrastructure/carbon/energy for commute/pollution etc issues mean we’re all screwed with the impact on the environment. Tall buildings are not the only model for achieving urban density but, if designed right, they can be part of the solution, as shown in many cities around the world. People need to get this in perspective. Currently the USA has 3 cities greater than 2 million in population, and a further 6 greater than 1 million. China is only currently less than 50% urbanized, and has literally hundreds of cities greater than 1 million, and many already at 10-20 million with a view to this becoming common across the whole country in the coming decades. And India will surpass China in total population, in a much reduced land area, within the next few decades. Sorry if this upsets people, but it’s not really about America.

This debate on urban density

This debate on urban density is missing the point a little. Nobody is suggesting that New York or Chicago should pack up its suburbs and move back into the city. But the reality is that almost 200,000 people are urbanizing on this planet every day i.e. moving from rural to urban, predominantly in China, India, Brazil etc. That means that, as a global species, we need an ‘extra’ city of 1 million inhabitants built every week to cope with this urban influx. If those developing cities follow the American horizontal model (dense downtown urban core + a massive every-growing horizontal suburb) then the infrastructure/carbon/energy for commute/pollution etc issues mean we’re all screwed with the impact on the environment. Tall buildings are not the only model for achieving urban density but, if designed right, they can be part of the solution, as shown in many cities around the world. People need to get this in perspective. Currently the USA has 3 cities greater than 2 million in population, and a further 6 greater than 1 million. China is only currently less than 50% urbanized, and has literally hundreds of cities greater than 1 million, and many already at 10-20 million with a view to this becoming common across the whole country in the coming decades. And India will surpass China in total population, in a much reduced land area, within the next few decades. Sorry if this upsets people, but it’s not really about America

Urban Density in the Developing Nations

The article is primarily about America. It uses New York as its main example of density. It does not talk about population pressure on cities in developing nations. Instead, it makes patently false statements such as: "We need vertical buildings to activate the public realm with people, to create dynamic street life in cities..." That a general statement about all cities, including cities in America and Europe.

To address the issue about the developing nations that you raise: I would like to see some quantitative work about the amount of land needed, but I can make very rough estimates that lead me to doubt that highrises are needed to accommodate growing urban populations in developing nations.

To give some very rough numbers, Paris has about 100 people per acre, and a city of 1 million people at that density would requires about 16 square miles (= 4 miles by 4 miles). The United States would obviously have huge amounts of open space if our entire population lived in cities of this density, instead of mostly living in suburbs with 2 to 4 people per acre. It seems that China, with about four times as many people in about the same land area, should also have enough land to accommodate its population at this density.

At this density, the amount of land needed for the cities people live would be a tiny fraction of the total land needed to grow their food, for their watersheds, and for the resources they use. Again, a very rough estimate would be 2 to 5 acres per person to support people at a comfortable standard of living, compared with 1/100 acre of land per person for the cities that people live in, if they live at Paris density. At this density, the city would be less than one half of one percent of the total land each person requires. The savings in total land that you would get by shifting from Paris density to highrises would be minute.

In addition, there are good reasons to believe that highrises are not green, as Mary Campbell Gallagher says in her current opinion piece about Paris. As Michael Mehaffy has pointed out, there is relatively little reduction in transportation distances when you go above Paris densities, and the materials needed to build highrises require much more energy than the materials used to build midrise housing.

As I have said, we really need detailed quantitative work about this issue, but my very rough estimates give me the impression that highrises are needed in cities like Hong Kong that do not have enough land to accommodate their population in any other way, but are not generally needed to accommodate the urbanization of the developing nations.

And there might be a backlash against highrises in the developing nations. China's middle class is beginning to move from its highrise cities to suburbs designed more on the American model. It obviously would be disastrous if that trend continued: the developing nations need attractive, human-scale cities that will keep their middle and upper-middle class (as Paris has) rather than overwhelming highrise cities that send the middle class fleeing to suburbs.

Charles Siegel

High Density City

I might also add that I imagine that we will be rethinking the very nature of the tall building too- not just concrete and steel but actually taking "biodiversity" from the surface of the planet and extruding it upward. the green gardens of the sky on facades/vertical surfaces, roofs, atria.... making one acre of earth now many acres of biodiverse surface.. the Living Building. See the writings of Ken Yeang

crowding and congestion

Sounds like the future will be one of crowding and congestion. I hope I'm dead by then.

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