Posts Tagged ‘skyscrapers’

The Limits of Density

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

South False Creek low rises, Vancouver
Low-rises in Vancouver’s S. False Creek

Quebec City, Quebec
Quebec City, successful lo-rise/high density combination

This short essay by Richard Florida in Atlantic Cities magazine has been making the rounds. It is just the latest in a long string of arguments from many quarters that highrise density isn’t the right density: usustainable, human-unfriendly, sterile, and inimical to innovation, interaction and arts. Highrise density primarily benefits the large developers who build it. We need a different model for Vancouver.

Density is all the rage these days. Urban economists, some of whom could be heard extolling the praises of “sun, skills, and sprawl” just a few years ago, now see increasing density as the key to improving productivity and driving economic growth. In his story for The Atlantic, “How Skyscrapers Can Save the City,” Harvard University’s Edward Glaeser put it this way: “As America struggles to regain its economic footing, we would do well to remember that dense cities are also far more productive than suburbs, and offer better-paying jobs … tall buildings enable the human interactions that are at the heart of economic innovation, and of progress itself.” Well-intentioned planners and preservationists drive up prices when they stand in the way of taller and taller buildings, he argues. Overly restrictive height limitations not only impede economic progress, but make cities less, not more, liveable.

There can be no doubt that density has its advantages. In general, denser cities are more productive, more innovative, and more energy efficient. But only up to a point.

The key function of a city is to enable exchange, interaction, and the combination and recombination of people and ideas. When buildings become so massive that street life disappears, they can damp down and limit just this sort of interaction, creating the same isolation that is more commonly associated with sprawl. As Jane Jacobs aptly put it: “in the absence of a pedestrian scale, density can be big trouble.” Skyscraper canyons of the sort that are found in many Asian mega-cities, and that are increasingly proposed in great American cities, risk becoming vertical suburbs, whose residents and occupants are less likely to engage frequently and widely with the hurly-burly of city life.

Edward McMahon of the Urban Land Institute cuts to the chase, differentiating between density and high-rise buildings in his recent post for Citiwire, “Density Without Highrises?”. If the pendulum originally swung too far in the direction of sprawl over the past 50 years, the risk today is that it is swinging way too far back toward high-rise skyscrapers. “To oppose a high-rise building,” he writes, “is to run the risk of being labeled a NIMBY, a dumb growth advocate, a Luddite — or worse. Buildings 20, 40, 60 even 100 stories tall are being proposed and built in low and mid-rise neighborhoods all over the world. All of these projects are justified with the explanation that if density is good, even more density is better.”

Stop and think for a moment: What kind of environments spur new innovation, start-ups and high-tech industries? Can you name one instance, one, of this sort of creative destruction occurring in high-rise office or residential towers, in skyscraper districts? The answer is no. High-rise districts typically house either corporate office functions or residences. During the post-war era, while they were building these towers for their corporate functions, large U.S. companies housed their research scientists in green, low-rise R&D campuses, where the scientists could interact more freely.

America’s high-tech, venture-funded start-up model of innovation came of age not in skyscraper canyons but in places like Silicon Valley, which provided such an ideal eco-system for creativity because of its city-like aspects. As Jonah Lehrer told Cities recently, “Silicon Valley manages to replicate the essential function of a dense city, which is to foster a diversity of interactions and knowledge spillovers,” albeit largely across industrial parks and based on the car.

Similarly, you don’t find great arts districts and music scenes in high-rise districts but in older, historic residential, industrial or warehousing districts such as New York’s Greenwich Village or Soho, or San Francisco’s Mission District, which were built before elevators enabled multi-story construction.

The urban tech districts that are emerging today, from SoMa in San Francisco to New York’s Silicon Alley and London’s Silicon Roundabout, are housed in similarly walkable, low to mid-story neighborhoods.

What we need are new measures of density that do not simply count how many people we can physically cram into a space but that accounts for how well the space is utilized, the kinds of interactions it facilitates. “By this measure,” McMahon writes, “one block of an older neighborhood might include a community theatre, a coffee shop, an art gallery, two restaurants, a bicycle shop, 10 music rehearsal studios, a church, 20 apartments and a couple of bars, and all with much more 24/7 activity and intensity of use than one block of (much taller) office buildings on K Street [in Washington, D.C.].”

Too many people today conflate density with height. Real interactive density can be better achieved by other means. “Yes, we do need more compact, walkable higher density communities,” writes McMahon. “But no we do not need to build thousands of look-a-like glass and steel skyscrapers to accomplish the goals of smart growth or sustainable development.” Neighborhoods like Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Brooklyn’s Park Slope, and the Fan in Richmond were largely built before the age of elevators and they are all dense. New Orleans’ “French Quarter has a net density of 38 units per acre, Georgetown 22 units per acre.” The real issue isn’t just height and the massing of people and work, but of enabling interaction and recombination.

“Density does not always demand high-rises,” notes McMahon. “Skyscrapers are a dime a dozen in today’s world. Once a low rise city or town succumbs to high-rise mania, many more towers will follow, until the city becomes a carbon-copy of every other city in a ‘geography of nowhere.'”

Richard Florida is Senior Editor at The Atlantic and Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. He is a frequent speaker to communities, business and professional organizations, and founder of the Creative Class Group.

Vision Vancouver, and Vancouver’s developers who erect giant carbuncles on the Vancouver landscape far from even a whiff of a reputable architect: take note.

See also Martha Rosler’s “Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism” and search this blog for “highrises” to find many other posts on this topic. Also see this on Northrop Frye and condo culture/garrison mentality. And The End of the Age of Tall Buildings.

“I’ve been told that the tallest building in hell has an awesome view of the emerald city”

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Heard those lyrics over the car radio last week. I did not know that the Emerald City was close enough to hell that you could actually see it from there, but that whole geography sounds a lot like Vancouver.

As everybody knows, the Emerald City is the fictional capital city in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But many forget the details: the city’s outer walls are green, but the the city itself, with its tall glass towers, is not; it only appears so because all who enter the Emerald City are required to wear green-tinted eyeglasses. Supposedly this is to protect their eyes from the “brightness and glory” of the city, but in effect it only makes everything appear green when the city is, in fact, “no more green than any other city. Sound familiar, Vancouver?

Baum’s Oz series, beginning with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was written in the U.S. during the financial crisis of the 1890s. Everyone knows the story of Oz, but not everyone knows that it is in part a political economic allegory based on early features of the takeover of the economy and politics by lending institutions, a phenomenon with which we’re now all too familiar. The yellow brick road represented the gold currency standard; Dorothy’s shoes were silver and represented the quantitative easing that Baum and a majority of the struggling population, especially the agricultural south, were clamouring for. But I digress.

I consider myself an environmentalist and am deeply in favour of green urban planning—when it’s real. I was initially in favour of Vision Vancouver’s “Greenest City Initiative,” but that support has evaporated. Read it for yourself; it’s smoke and mirrors and contains nothing substantive. Tall, speculation-driven glass condo towers are almost certainly not green (see link above). They cause numerous problems, are the opposite of energy efficient, have no longevity, and don’t bring adequate density to offset the resources they use and the extreme property value distortions they create. The Greenest City Initiative, resting as it does far too heavily on highrises built by megadevelopers , is the green sunglasses of Oz. I wonder what property values are like in the Emerald City? And what’s the point of a policy that contributes to a commuter city no workers can afford to live in? By the way, the ever-present highrise policy is noticeably de-emphasized on the GCI website.

Let’s remember that the Emerald City’s magical wizard turned turned out to be a secretive, inaccessible, fraudulent little guy behind a curtain, creating grand illusions with smoke and projections.

I know I’m probably getting repetitive on this topic, and it’s only going to get worse. History itself is getting painfully repetitive.

Vancouver hosted the first ever global conference on green cities: UN Habitat Conference on Human Settlements, 1976. How far we have fallen.

UPDATE: Read The Limits of Density:
“Density does not always demand high-rises,” notes McMahon. “Skyscrapers are a dime a dozen in today’s world. Once a low rise city or town succumbs to high-rise mania, many more towers will follow, until the city becomes a carbon-copy of every other city in a ‘geography of nowhere.'”

PPS. from Wikipedia:

In Gregory Maguire‘s revisionist Oz novels… the Emerald City is an even darker place than in Baum’s novels. It does have splendid palaces and gardens, but also sections beset by crime and poverty… The green glasses that are worn by the citizens are often used as a way to stop them seeing what is going on around them. Video Game Emerald City Confidential portrays the Emerald City as a film noir place with private detectives, widespread corruption, mob bosses, smugglers, and crooked lawyers. Set 40 years after the events of The Wizard of Oz, it’s described as “Oz, seen through the eyes of Raymond Chandler“.[16]

PPPS. Light at the end of the tunnel? “Hey Toronto condo owner: Why so glum?

The End of the Age of Tall Buildings

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Vancouver towers from Wikimedia Commons

[Update: see post on this topic on the Vancouver Lights blog. Also see this critique of glass highrises by Lisa Rochon in the Globe and Mail.]

Apologies that this is such a long post. For urbanist nerds only, perhaps, though this issue affects anyone interested in urban affordability

The other evening I had to go to a meeting in a condo tower’s boardroom. I left the building at dusk and found that I couldn’t orient myself. I was with a friend and we actually stood there in the windy canyon between glass towers trying to figure out which way we were going. We oriented ourselves after a minute but were left with the impression of a confusing, generic, bleak, pedestrian-free dead zone in which the only moving objects were cars. And this was on a dry, balmy late September night! I cycled home and ten minutes later found my own neighbourhood alive with people still out walking and talking at 9 pm.

The worst part is that these generic glass towers—which are being erected all over town and steadily damaging neighbourhood life and texture—are not fully inhabited. Realtors have been warning us for some time that a large percentage of condos are owned by absent non-resident investors (probably both local and foreign). We await studies of hydro/electricity usage to prove this, but it’s almost certain that there is an element of property speculation in the tower business.

Now it turns out that on top of the aesthetic problems and the property speculation, the towers aren’t even green. This is pretty egregious considering that their “sustainability” has been their main political justification at City Hall over two different administrations.

Why are we still letting developers build condo towers, exactly?

The excerpts below are from Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change: a 21st Century Survival Guide (2nd Edition, 2009) by Sue Roaf, David Chrichton, Fergus Nicol. It was published in 2009 and I’m told is internationally regarded as the most comprehensive and authoritative study of this topic to date. It is described at and can be downloaded free of charge here.

My interest in this topic is motivated by what I see happening in Vancouver where the newest architectural style is something I just call “Tall Naked Capital.” A new shadow-throwing, wind-producing towers do damage to the quality of pedestrian spaces in this city, not to mention all the other effects such as sterile streetscapes, failure to fit in with existing historical architecture, community patterns and existing cultures, as well as raising local rents and property prices. The main beneficiaries of towers seem to be the mega-developers who build them. What’s most disturbing is the unexamined notion that these buildings, due to their density, are “green.” What is green about them, and does their dense stacking of humans really outweigh their non-green impacts? Are they really green or have developers merely disseminated that myth? Vancouver has always been dominated by powerful developers, who, by the way, have built virtually no great buildings in 30 years, have recently tried to ram a downtown mega-casino down our throats, and are generally working against the best interests of the city and its inhabitants by helping to drive up land prices.

The chapter below makes interesting reading. Introduction to this topic by a friend of mine:

“Apparently the University of BC’s School of Community and Regional Planning SCARP “Urban Studio” project has used this and other sustainability research to demonstrate that Vancouver could meet extremely aggressive  growth demand projections for about the next half-century, without further upzoning (or spot rezonings) for highrises in the West End, Heritage Districts, or Downtown South, through the use of low-rise and lower mid-rise building forms that are consistent with existing Local Area Plans and City Plan Visions. For an earlier draft of this (supplied by Patrick Condon) see .

This is primarily accomplished through build-out of existing mixed-use (C2) zones and moderate extensions of these zones along arterials presently served by transit. With rate-of-change and inclusionary rental polices, and increased DCLs (to lock in funding for public amenities), such incremental, iterative redevelopment would protect and provide relatively “affordable” housing (“core-need” requires senior government funding), and a sufficient increase in retail and services for the expanded population in walkable neighbourhood centres, respecting and protecting human scale, neighbourhood character, public views, access to sun and sky for homes, gardens and the public realm through the use of building forms that are inherently “green”—unlike the highrises and mega-towers for which the big developers have been lobbying Council. In fact, the rezoning policies and spot rezonings that these developers, city staff and Council have been relentlessly pursuing (not only downtown, but in Marpole, Norquay, Mount Pleasant, etc), undermine the neighbourhood-based CityPlan paradigm (which, ironically, is essentially “greener” than many of the greenwashed, developer-driven EcoDensity/Greenest City land-use policies), by diverting development to these less sustainable and generally more problematic large-scale options.”


The age of skyscrapers is at an end. It must now be considered an experimental building typology that has failed. With the arrival of the global economic slump in 2007/08, so began the end of the age of tall buildings. We wrote of its imminent demise in the first edition of this book and since then the prediction has come true. The reasons we gave in 2003 and what has happened since, are covered below in a review of the phenomena that must constitute the twentieth century’s greatest‘ follies de grandeur.


The foghorns which used to seem so romantic

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Fog in Vancouver

Vancouver in the Fog

This is the odd fog inversion Vancouver has been under for most of January. Anyone living close to the harbour is now seriously over the supposed charm of the foghorns, which blew approximately every forty seconds all night long, every night for weeks. Above are views of a few downtown buildings rising above the fog, taken from up in the mountains. Below is the hellish way downtown looked on January 18th – at high noon – when stuck in lunchtime traffic behind a schoolbus. More here and here.

Vancouver fog inversion, noon, January 21, 2009