How Tall is Too Tall?

What is the best height to promote good urban living? It needs to be high to attain necessary density but not so high that it detracts from the quality of life, particularly for existing residents. In short, what is the Goldilocks height level?
April 26, 2014, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Duncan Harris

Are residential high rises good for the urban environment? Lloyd Alter, Toronto resident and managing editor of TreeHugger, answers that question in The Guardian's "Live Better Challenge" that focuses on sustainable living, He asserts that "(t)he trend for elite towers that reach ever skywards isn't healthy for a sustainable community or for a balanced quality of life."

There is no question that high urban densities are important, but the question is how high, and in what form. There is what I have called the Goldilocks density: dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

In Manhattan, Alter would find many in agreement about the obtrusiveness of what they call "supertowers," reports NPR's New York City correspondent, Margot Adler [listen here], on the opposition movement to the One57 building and the shadows (see photo) it will cast over Central Park, though they have their defenders.

"The shadows cast by tall, slender buildings, which is what most of the buildings going up are, are very brief — maybe they're 10 minutes in any one place — and cause no negative effect on the flora or fauna of the park," said Gary Barnett, president of Extell Development.

Back to our Treehugger editor, Lloyd Alter, an architect, environmentalist and a "heritage activist" residing in Toronto. On his world list of supertowers, he points to the "knocking down (of) four designated heritage buildings to build three 85-storey Frank Gehry towers." While he doesn't write much about them, I suspect they may be the root of his column.

Fortunately, he includes a link to a local architectural review of the project, even if it is a flattering one, designed by the world-famous Gehry, a Toronto native. [Also see a post here on the project: "Toronto Asks Gehry to Go Back to Drawing Board."]

For a good read on Toronto density, see Planetizen exclusive: "Mid-Rise: Density at a Human Scale."

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Published on Wednesday, April 16, 2014 in The Guardian
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