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 http://www.downarchive.com/ebooks/260105-adapting-buildings-and-cities-for-climate-change.html 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 http://www.urbanstudio.sala.ubc.ca/2010/book%20templates.html .
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 END OF THE AGE OF TALL BUILDINGS
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.’