Tall Tower Debates Could Use Less Dogma, Better Design

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This week, I'll be taking part in the Congress for the New Urbanism Summit in Buffalo, along with many of my colleagues with the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Although I usually find CNU events to be filled with great discussions, information-sharing and debate, one debate in particular that I often find there, I mostly find discouraging.

It's the debate about tall buildings, possibly the most polarizing argument in CNU circles (arguably even more than the lingering traditional vs contemporary architecture debate), and maybe in urbanism circles in general.

In previous posts and talks, I've discussed the importance of what I call "density done well." It might be impossible to discuss the controversial issue of density (still referred to by some politicians as “the d-word”) without discussing height. In fact, height is often more polarizing and controversial than density itself. Height and density have a relationship, one that can be over-simplified or mischaracterized, but they aren’t the same thing - you can have density without height, and yes, you can have height without density.

When it comes to building height, there's a lot of dogma out there among urbanists, in both directions. From time to time I've wound up in the middle of the two-headed height dogma monster and have usually tried to convey a third perspective. This isn't easy, as I’ve been characterized as both a champion of tall buildings (I was Chief Planner in Vancouver, perceived by many to be a “tall building mecca,” after all…), and as a champion for ground-oriented density (what I’ve called “gentle density”) and mid-rise density, having opposed tall towers in many contexts (such as along much of the Cambie Corridor, as discussed at length here). Both characterizations are partially true, and potentially misleading, depending on the context in which I’m being labelled. But I'll come back to that.

Now that I'm consulting around the world, I'm occasionally asked for advice on what to do with the tall tower issue, often in the context of a controversial proposal. I'm struck by how often, when I review proposed designs, my concerns about what I see have little to do with the building height.

Urbanists like Jim Kunstler, Leon Krier, and my good friend Jan Gehl are usually on one side of the height debate – they are not fans of tall buildings. Those against tall buildings usually set a maximum height of somewhere between 4 to 8 stories. One of my favorite quotes I heard from a renowned architect dipping deep into dogma, was that there was a "special level of Hell dedicated to architects who design buildings over six stories." Wow.

Just last weekend a noted urbanism writer and friend commented in a public lecture that "I guess there must be SOME people who like living in tall buildings…" suggesting that it was a terrible lifestyle that people were somehow fooled into or stuck with because they had no other choice (ignoring the market reality that buyers often pay premiums to live on higher floors). He suggested a lack of social relationships between neighbours in tall buildings as just one example of this poor living condition high up.

On the other side of the height debate are people like Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, along with many architects, who argue that when it comes to tall towers, the more and the taller the better, even in beloved special and historic contexts like New York's Soho and Greenwich Village. Reasons brought up range from affordability to climate change, sometimes with extreme statements and false choices (my favourite is the suggestion I've heard in our local Vancouver density debates, that if we don't do tall buildings basically everywhere, "the polar icecaps will melt”).

I myself speak of the strong connection between density done well and issues like affordability and climate change. But I reject the argument for any density at any height at any cost, and I dislike these kind of extreme and lazy false choices as unhelpful to a useful dialogue on what well-designed density can do.

In their worst moments, these tower proponents seem to feel there's no tower too tall, regardless of context. But of course there are buildings that are too big, too tall, for a site. Not because of an initial dogma about height, to be clear, but because of context-driven urban design considerations that start with an open mind. As a matter of fact, I believe the "how big is too big" discussion is currently the most important element of density done well in current development and design discussions here in Vancouver.

I’d like to think that both of these sides of the height debate are actually the extreme positions, and that the majority of urbanists are more balanced, for lack of a better term. It’s hard to tell though, as these positions get so much attention in the media, and in urbanist circles.

For my part, I try to avoid what I consider "scale dogma." I am neither inherently for tall buildings, nor against them. There is no height that will automatically consign me or my fellow urbanists to Hell. There are, however, good and bad design choices.

Although I have nothing against tall towers per se, there are few things I dislike more than a tall tower in a dumb place, or a badly designed tall building – of which there are many. In fact, many of the cities I've worked with likely have a dislike of tall buildings stemming from one (or some) they've approved in the past that was just plain awful. I call this the “Montparnasse Effect,” named after the tower in Paris that so infuriated Parisians. I often note that “if that tower was what I thought I’d be getting, I’d be against tall towers too!”

For me, tower height isn’t a “yes or no” question for a city – it’s a question of where, where not, and just as importantly, how. It’s less about how tall a tower is, and more about how buildings of any height are designed.

Design success isn't simply about architectural statement and beauty - although these can be very important. It's more about how tall buildings, any buildings really, contribute to the urban design of the city. It's about how a tower design "lands" and about the design of the community it lands in – how it strengthens or weakens the street, block, neighbourhood – the essential urban quality of any urban place.

Height can directly effect the public realm of the city negatively, as when tall buildings cast shadow on great public places. But just as often, the height debate can be about "subjective" design considerations that are much harder to measure or quantify, including what people personally like or dislike. The best example of this is when a building is said to "just feel too big" - a statement I take seriously relative to a building's scale, fit and context. 

Don't get me wrong – I do see value and opportunities for insight in these height/scale debates, especially when we get into specifics. One interesting issue is the suggestion that taller buildings are more socially isolating. As human beings, there's something to be said for a relationship with the ground, and the kind of social relationships that it seems to offer (whether one chooses to take advantage of them or not). Although I wish our tendancy to interact with our neighbors wasn't different on the floor of a high-rise compared to a leafy walkable street, studies have suggested that it is. The “why” is tougher to understand, since it actually seems easier to interact with your neighbours in the hallway and elevator than across intervening fences and streets.

Perhaps it’s about forced interaction resulting from daily details like a tree that goes over the property line, or about the presence of “social lubricants“ and excuses to start a conversation like dogs, kids, tomatoes and the state of a lawn or garden, that make people more willing to interact with their neighbors on the street than in high-density shared floors. Maybe it's just the phenomenon, often cited, of higher concentrations of people leading us to feel “alone in a crowd.”

Jan Gehl's masterful research in his wonderful books (which are some of my favourites) has even established a connection between building height and the ability of parents to interact with and recognize the face of their children playing down at ground level, and the social advantanges that come with that. This is a factor in what designers call the creation of a "human scale." I admire this research, and think it raises critical considerations for planning and design.

But here's the thing – in the complex considerations of "density done well" & better urbanism, I don't believe these social observations trump every other consideration in design. In other words, it's an important factor and consideration, but isn't a deal-breaker nixing taller buildings in every context. To suggest this issue should automatically trump all others in design considerations - which I've had designers suggest to me - seems dogmatic.

To explain why, I often tell the story of the building that I live in here in downtown Vancouver. It's a block-sized assembly of 2 midrise podium buildings, and two high-rise towers, interconnected and sharing amenities, attached to a transit skytrain station and creating multiple street frontages. In many ways it’s typical of the "podium & point tower" building type that has become part of the Vancouver Model internationally. Unlike many of our earlier such buildings however, rather than townhouses framing the street, mid-rises as high as 7-8 storeys create an urban street wall with an effective height-to-width ratio to frame the street, and retail stores at grade to activate the street.

The prevailing physical character and sense of scale along the street in the block is defined by the mid-rise mass more than by the towers, giving it a workable human scale. In between the two towers and mid-rise is an elevated courtyard also partially framed by rowhouses, one of the best designed private courtyard spaces in the city in my opinion.

When I first moved in, my good friend, an urbanite who also worked at City Hall at the time, moved in as well. He chose his home in one of the tall towers, with beautiful views of the mountains and city. These views were one of the key selling points for the home for him, a key reason he chose to live downtown, as he loves being up high and enjoying a connection with our remarkable setting here in Vancouver. Suggesting to him that being high up cuts off his connection with the street and makes it impossible for him to recognize his child's face in the courtyard, would probably elicit a laugh. How would this hypothetical scenario in any way relate to his real life, he would likely ask?

Possibly riffing off an old Star Trek episode, I often refer to my friend as a "sky person."

I, on the other hand, chose a home in the midrise, overlooking both the courtyard and the street. For me, these visual and social relationships with the ground are more important than height, so why would I pay the premium usually demanded for higher floors and “better” views?

I often refer to myself as a "ground person."

Both my friend and I interact with our buildings and neighbourhood, and in fact he likely knows more people in the building than I do. Is our social and civic life determined by how many floors we come down in the elevator?

The beauty of our block and building is that the design provides an option for both of us – both ground people and sky people. Telling either one of us that we’re wrong, that we're suffering socially as a result of our choice, would be ridiculous to either of us. We both made our choice based on what we value most, but what's really important is that we’re both living downtown in a highly urban, mixed-use, walkable, transit-friendly, infrastructure-efficient and low-carbon footprint context.

Whatever reason people choose to live in higher densities, I'm glad they're making that choice. It’s part of making higher density more attractive than the alternatives, which we know have serious societal implications and costs.

That's the thing about height and density in Vancouver - when done well, our approach blends the best of both scales. The mid-rise establishes the "urban room" and walkability of the street, particularly given that we ensure that building edges are as consistently active as practical. The additional tower density is literally added on top of the mid-rise density - you certainly couldn't claim here, as some do in other contexts, that you could get more density in mid-rise form than you can in high-rise form. With the towers separated and no more than 2 per long rectangular block-face (and often one), the human scale is created by the podium.

Often copied, but sadly often poorly, this building form can provide the "have your cake and eat it too" result in terms of the scale debates, so much so that Jan Gehl has commented that he "still doesn't think cities need high-rises, but if they choose to do them, they should do them like Vancouver does."

Gehl's analysis of social connections, as well as issues like light access, the creation of a sense of “enclosure” on the street through the height-to-width ratio, and so on, illustrate why I like mid-rise buildings – they perform well in many ways, and have many advantages. As I’ve noted many times, I'd prefer to see more mid-rise as the prevailing “pattern-maker” in cities & city-regions like Vancouver, at least on key streets and avenues. High-rises shouldn't be the norm everywhere, I believe, or the lazy assumption on any given site. In most cities, I would see tall towers as context-based exceptions, not the norm.

But in our downtown, and in strategic locations across the city and region such as at stations for high-order public transit and in strategic neighbourhood centres, I have no problem at all with considering taller buildings, preferably along with other forms and scales. How tall they should be, and how many towers there should be, is an urban design investigation and a conversation with the community and stakeholders.

But regardless of their height, towers should land well, activate and enliven the streets and spaces, avoid casting harmful shadows on key public places, be separated to allow light access, privacy and views, and generally be designed very well. If they're not, they shouldn't be approved.

It's hard to have all these complex considerations and conversations though, when you're fixated on the fact that a building is taller than six storeys. And the fear that, as a result, you're going to Hell.

So will this height debate spark up again at CNU in Buffalo this week? I have a feeling this article may lead a few attendees to seek me out and give me their two cents on what I've written, and indeed, I welcome different perspectives in the comments below. It's possible both "sides" may be equally testy with me!

Maybe, though, I'll be pleasantly surprised and find that it has found its way to an "agree to disagree" place among urbanists now focusing more on common thinking, than on what Richard Florida calls " the narcissism of small differences." Given the need we have for better urban design in cities, and the scale of the challenge around a planning and development system that is still pumping out sprawl at a shocking pace around North America and the globe, can we really as urbanists afford to be divided by distracting dogma?

To paraphrase an old saying, I hope we can focus on the quality and success of the urban forest, not just on how tall the trees are.

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian

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