Is Tall All There Is?

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Last week, Alissa Walker wrote a piece in Gizmodo with the headline "Tall is Good: How a Lack of Building Up is Keeping Our Cities Down." Walker argues that buildings taller than 4 stories need to be built to keep cities from pricing out its lower-income citizens, and that cities should be removing height limits and encouraging super tall - and thin - buildings. Walker was inspired by a breathtaking CGI vista in Spike Jonze's new film set in the future showing a Los Angeles full of scintillating skyscrapers.

I agree, of course, that well-designed density creates a host of benefits, connecting people socially and economically, improving health, reducing energy use and pollution, etc. I also was happy to see Gabe Metcalf at SPUR advocating for finding ways to build taller in San Francisco, which desperately needs more housing to meet demand and relieve some pressure on rents. But whether skyscrapers are the one true solution for most American cities is still a matter of debate. The great architect Leon Krier, who influenced many New Urbanists, writes passionately in the recently released 2nd Edition of the Charter of the New Urbanism book that buildings should have "an unsurpassable maximum of five floors - in short, to walkable building heights." James Howard Kunstler argues that skyscrapers will quickly become irreperable relics when peak oil and climate change transform our environment. 

I'm personally not an extremist - after an extensive look at the issues around skyscrapers a few years back in Planetizen, I concluded that there is nothing inherently wrong with them. And as Alissa points out, most of our negative impressions of tall buildings are fueled by media depictions of dystopias and a history of sticking poor people in "towers in the park", but that doesn't mean that skyscrapers can't be built that effectively meet the street. 

But as a planner mellowing over the years and surrounded by the expertise of CNU thought leaders, I feel like an overemphasis on height is misplaced. Of course in New York City, it would be a crime to build anything under 6 stories, maybe even under 20 stories. But New York is an anomaly - should Kansas City be focusing entirely on skyscrapers? And Alissa's Los Angeles (where I also live), which has blocks and blocks of poorly-used, undervalued buildings and land - shouldn't we be fixing the streetscapes and populating those 3-6 story structures before shooting new skyscrapers up?

How about Mesa, Arizona, where CNU staff recently visited? In Mesa, the mayor and local developers are all on board to create more walkable, urban neighborhoods, but they can't make a building over 5 stories pencil out. They also have endless miles of streets with enormous setbacks. If the need is greater to create street life than to build up, where should the emphasis be?

This is my central concern about skyscrapers; Unless they are already in a densely-packed city, or there is a huge pent-up demand, super-tall buildings have the potential to drain life off of the street. There are a lot of ways to structure a building envelope to house a significant number of people and a mix of uses without going up, up, up. While I'm nowhere near advocating that we follow Krier's advice and ban any building taller than 5 stories, I'm of the growing opinion that modesty is necessary and a healthy respect for scale is the way to go. Paris is often cited as the model for the sort of lovely densification that can be acheived with 4-story buildings, but Madrid is another potent example. Not all cities can be a Paris or Madrid, but not all cities can be a Hong Kong either. And with decades of backlash against poorly-constructed apartment buildings and towers, perhaps we should be concentrating building places of quality over height?

And while local height limits can sometimes be too restrictive, the type of 2-4 story, mixed-use development I'm talking about faces non-negotiable Federal obstacles that have kept this midrange option (that I think is crucial to city infrastructure) from getting built. Developers are actually incentivized to "build high to qualify" for Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac mortgages, which may lead to density that the market won't support. 

What I think we really need are developers, architects and planners willing to embrace the on-the-ground conditions, build to meet the street in a lively and interactive manner that supports neighborhood commerce and social settings, and adds housing in inventive ways that support the needs of families of all sizes and income levels. If a skyscraper meets those needs, so be it. But I think more often the result would be a building with variety of levels, from 2-6 stories, that fit together into a community. 

Tim Halbur is communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).

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