The "Vertical Sprawl" Myth

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

In the ongoing controversy over height limits of various types, one phrase commonly bandied about is “vertical sprawl.”  Some argue that tall infill development is itself “sprawl” – presumably because just as regular sprawl extends horizontally into the countryside, taller buildings extend vertically into the airspace.

But in fact, there is no similarity between taller buildings (even high-rises) and horizontal sprawl, because the major concerns about sprawl are unrelated to height, and vice versa.  To examine why this is so, let’s ask ourselves: why should we care about traditional sprawl? 

The most commonly voiced concerns, as far as I can see, fall into two categories:

*Environmental. Environmentalists worry that sprawl leads to more driving, and thus to more air pollution and climate change.  By contrast, infill development (whether the development is two stories high or thirty) in transit-friendly areas actually reduces driving by increasing the number of people with access to public transit.

*Social equity and quality of life.  Sprawl means that jobs and other social amenities move to places without public transit, thus making it impossible for persons without cars to reach jobs.  Residential infill development (whether the development is two stories high or thirty) means that more people can live in areas with public transit, and commercial infill increases the number of people whose jobs are reachable by transit.   

Admittedly, it could be argued that infill development leads to gentrification, which in turn leads to displacement of the poor.  Even if this argument had some validity (a subject best addressed in a separate post) it is irrelevant to height.   Even if it was true that infill development increased real estate prices to the extent that poor people were driven into car-dependent suburbia, this would be the case whether the development consisted of two-story walkups or twenty-story towers. 

It seems to me that the most common concerns about high- and mid-rise infill have nothing to do with sprawl.  Some people have aesthetic concerns about taller buildings- but even if both types of structures are both unattractive, a high-rise tower is not physically similar to a strip mall any more than a morally unattractive gossiping neighbor is similar to a morally unattractive dictator 4000 miles away. 

NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attacks on infill development often center on traffic and parking.  But these arguments are often a defense of existing sprawl rather than an honest attempt to compare horizontal sprawl and high-rises: if you really believe that compact development creates traffic congestion, you must therefore believe that sprawl eliminates congestion, and that sprawl is a good thing.  And if you believe that land’s highest and best use is for cars rather than people, you should think that sprawl is perfectly fine.  In any event these arguments are really attacks on infill and density generally, not attacks on high-rises specifically.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.

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Comments

Shane Phillips's picture
Blogger

In response to this paragraph

In response to this paragraph:

"Admittedly, it could be argued that infill development leads to gentrification, which in turn leads to displacement of the poor. Even if this argument had some validity (a subject best addressed in a separate post) it is irrelevant to height. Even if it was true that infill development increased real estate prices to the extent that poor people were driven into car-dependent suburbia, this would be the case whether the development consisted of two-story walkups or twenty-story towers."

I just wanted to add that not only is this true, but twenty-story towers actually reduce the level of displacement by providing more housing on a smaller geographical footprint. If gentrification were occuring such that more affluent people were displacing less well-off citizens and replacing their homes with two story walkups, it would require a much larger amount of land to be redeveloped to fit the same number of new residents.

Vertical Sprawl

Did I really read this article? Were you asleep when you wrote it? Was your point really "vertical sprawl isn't really sprawl because it doesn't increase driving or congestion"? Oh dear. Let me school you. By the way, I had never heard of vertical sprawl until now...and I already know what it is. And why it's an issue. And I don't even work in urban planning. Take some notes...

1. Let's say you build an obnoxiously-tall high-rise condo tower. You just created an instant need for an ocean of parking spaces (unless you built it in Manhattan or one of the other 10% of neighborhoods in America that aren't car-dependent). Are you going to build an entire high-rise parking garage next to it? No, you'll probably end up using a massive parking lot across the street from it. So you've just laminated that monstrous hole in the urban fabric. I read somewhere recently that 30% of urban spaces are parking lots. Parking lots are like gaping wounds in (what should be) walkable, dynamic urban environments.

2. Let's talk about population. You just sucked a huge number of homeowners up into your monstrous tower. Those homeowners won't be able to live in row houses to fill out the surrounding blocks and create vibrant neighborhoods. So all those vacant lots and abandoned buildings scattered nearby...they're going to remain that way. While your tower looks down over a desolate landscape.

3. Let's talk about retail. Where will it be? Will you have rows of shops forming walkable corridors within a few blocks of your residents? No, because you have a tower, across from a massive parking lot, surrounded by vacant lots and abandoned buildings. So your residents will inevitably hop in their cars and drive several miles away to a strip center or shopping mall (a disconnected modern perversion of an urban retail corridor). You may be able to stick 1 restaurant and 1 pharmacy on the ground floor of your mega-tower.

Bottom Line? Vertical sprawl can be very real. Elevators are no substitutes for walkable streetscapes. Aim for a continuous, integrated neighborhood of 3-story row houses, served by walkable commercial corridors. Take your drawings of condo towers and massive parking lots and throw them in the trash bin.

straw man

You have created a straw man of the argument. The author said nothing of huge parking lots and specifically mentioned high-rises as being appropriate in areas that are well served by public transportation.

Furthermore, you completely ignored the laws of supply and demand to create some fantasy world where these market rate high-rises will be surrounded by abandoned housing. The truth of the matter is that such a development would only be attractive if it were surrounded by an in-demand neighborhood. There wouldn't be enough pent up demand to make such a project feasible unless there was a dense urban fabric surrounding it (without resorting to the huge parking lots that YOU added to the scenario, not the author).

The fact that you admittedly just learned what vertical sprawl is means that you probably shouldn't pretend to be an expert on the economics of high-rise construction.

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