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Lewyn Addresses America

A little politics, a little urbanism- I also blog 100 percent on urbanism at and

For some reason, there have been a lot of posts in the New Urbanist blogosphere attacking high-rises.  The most heavily publicized of these posts is below, with my comments in bold.

Let me add that I’m not sure I want a city that is totally skyscraper-dominated; I realize that there are legitimate concerns about the energy consumption of the tallest buildings.  But other arguments I find less persuasive.

Density Without High-Rises?

Edward T. McMahon / May 11 2012

For Release Friday, May 11, 2012

Edward T. McMahonWhen it comes to land development, Americans famously dislike two things: too much sprawl and too much density. Over the past 50 years, the pendulum swung sharply in the direction of spread-out, single use, drive everywhere for everything, low density development.

Now the pendulum is swinging back. High energy prices, smart growth, transit oriented development, new urbanism, infill development, sustainability concerns: are all coalescing to foster more compact, walkable, mixed use and higher density development.

The pendulum swing is both necessary and long overdue. Additionally, there is a growing demand for higher density housing because of demographic and lifestyle preference changes among boomers and young adults. The problem is that many developers and urban planners have decided that density requires high rises: the taller, the better. To oppose a high-rise building is to run the risk of being labeled a NIMBY, a dumb growth advocate, a Luddite — or worse.

Who are these developers and urban planners?  And do they have even a smidgen of political power?  In the real world where I live, building anything taller than a couple of stories will run into even more NIMBY opposition than other compact development. (For an example, see my last post about a downzoning in Harlem).

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.

Are these projects significant compared to the number of  proposals for new single-family suburban sprawl?

Washington, D.C. is just the latest low- or mid-rise city to face demands for taller buildings.

The phrase “low or mid-rise city” implies that entire cities should be off-limits to taller buildings- in other words, that taller buildings (whatever THAT means) are only for a few very big cities.  I don’t think McMahon would dare suggest that single-family homes is something that should be allowed only in the smallest cities.  So why does he think that tall buildings should be allowed only in the biggest cities? Why the double standard?

Yet Washington is one of the world’s most singularly beautiful cities for several big reasons: first, the abundance of parks and open spaces, second, the relative lack of outdoor advertising (which has over commercialized so many other cities), and third a limit on the height of new buildings.

I’ve been in Washington’s commercial district- full of blocky, dull 5 and 10 story buildings.  If you think these buildings are “singularly beautiful” your tastes are not mine.

I will acknowledge that the “Buck Rogers”-like skylines of cities like Shanghai and Dubai can be thrilling — at a distance. But at street level they are often dreadful. The glass and steel towers may be functional, but they seldom move the soul or the traffic as well as more human scale, fine-grained neighborhoods.

English translation: high-rises in Dubai are ugly.  Therefore, high-rises everywhere are ugly.  I live in NYC (where some tall buildings are not in fact ugly). so I give this argument a minimum of high regard.

Yes, we do need more compact, walkable higher density communities. 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.

English translation: if we allow high-rises anywhere, there will be “thousands”- in other words, they will take over and drive out anything else!  Again, I live in NYC and see taller and not-so-tall buildings coexisting amicably.  So I don’t find this argument persuasive at all.

In truth, many of America’s finest and most valuable neighborhoods achieve density without high rises. Georgetown in Washington, Park Slope in Brooklyn, the Fan in Richmond, and the French Quarter in New Orleans are all compact, walkable, charming — and low rise. Yet, they are also dense: the French Quarter has a net density of 38 units per acre, Georgetown 22 units per acre.

Yes, but they are all a heck of a lot more car-dependent than Manhattan (with the possible exception of Park Slope, which would be car-dependent if it was not part of a city with a super-dense high-rise business district).

Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean’s book Visualizing Density vividly illustrates that we can achieve tremendous density without high-rises. They point out that before elevators were invented, two- to four- story “walk-ups” were common in cities and towns throughout America. Constructing a block of these type of buildings could achieve a density of anywhere from 20 to 80 units an acre.

Mid-rise buildings ranging from 5 to 12 stories can create even higher density neighborhoods in urban settings, where buildings cover most of the block. Campoli and McLean point to Seattle where mid-rise buildings achieve densities ranging from 50 to 100 units per acre, extraordinarily high by U.S. standards.

Seattle?  Another city that is quite a bit more car-dependent than NYC or Chicago or even DC.  Just because Seattle is not as bad as Jacksonville doesn’t make it a role model of walkability.

Today, density is being pursued as an end in itself, rather than as one means to building better cities.

Pursued by who?

According to research by the Preservation Green Lab, fine grained urban fabric -– for example of a type found on Washington’s Capitol Hill, the U Street Corridor, NOMA and similar neighborhoods — is much more likely to foster local entrepreneurship and the creative economy than monolithic office blocks and apartment towers.

You mean Washington isn’t full of monolithic office blocks?  Is the office block any less monolithic because the buildings are 10 stories instead of 20?  This is not the way I remember Washington.

Perhaps cities like Washington, should consider measuring density differently. Instead of looking at just the quantity of space, they should also consider the 24/7 intensity of use. By this measure, 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.

Yes, but some of those people have to work in office buildings.  And if we don’t put the office buildings on K Street they will go to the suburbs.  And why should there be only 20 apartments on the street?  Isn’t housing already expensive enough in Washington?

In addition to Washington, St Petersburg, Russia; Basel, Switzerland; Edinburgh, Scotland and Paris, France are just a few of the hundreds of cities around the world where giant out-of-scale skyscrapers have been recently proposed in formerly low or mid-rise historic settings.

How tall do you think a building is before it becomes a “skyscraper” or “giant”?  And if skyscrapers are being proposed, could that be an indication that maybe people need more office space than is currently out there?

The issue of tall buildings in historic cities is not a small one. City after city has seen fights between those who want to preserve neighborhood integrity and those who want Trump towers and “starchitect” skyscrapers.

“Neighborhood integrity” means preserving the status quo.  In a compact city, preserving the status quo means sky-high rents (since if nothing new gets built, the surging demand for city life will cause people to bid up prices on the existing housing supply).  That’s what happened in the Washington that you venerate – NY housing prices without NY amenities.

Prince Charles, for example recently criticized the “high-rise free for all” in London which he said has left the city with a “pockmarked skyline and a degraded public realm.” Today, skyscrapers called the “Shard” and the “Gherkin” loom over the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and other famous landmarks.

Whatever one thinks of Prince Charles, there’s no question that he has raised some important issues about the future of the built environment. These include:

  1. Does density always require high rises?
  2. Are historic neighborhoods adequately protected from incompatible new construction?
  3. What is more important — the ability of tall buildings to make an architectural statement, or the need for new buildings to fit into existing neighborhoods?
  4. Should new development shape the character of our cities — or should the character of our cities shape the new development

2-4 sound to me a lot like “preserve the status quo at all costs.”  Great for landlords, bad for tenants (since a “stable” housing supply means high rents). 

Great for landlords in suburban office parks (since the businesses who can’t find anyplace to go in the stuck-in-amber city will go there), bad, bad, bad for anyone who wants his or her job to be in the city’s stagnant stock of office buildings.

I love the skylines of New York, Chicago and many other high-rise cities. But I also love the skylines of Washington, Charleston, Savannah, Prague, Edinburgh, Rome and other historic mid- and low-rise cities.

Again, note the strategy of segregation.  High-rises are only for a few places, they are not for everyone. (But of course, every city just HAS to have tons and tons of sprawl, because when it comes to allowing sprawl we care about the free market- when it comes to allowing more density or taller buildings, not so much.)

By the way, there are high-rises in Europe: even in Paris! (See here for a list).

It would be a tragedy to turn all of these remarkable places into tower cities. Density does not always demand high-rises. Skyscrapers are a dime a dozen in today’s world.

Wait a minute, first you’re telling me skyscrapers are only allowed in a few cities, now you’re telling me that they are “a dime a dozen.”?  How can both propositions be true?

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”.

As I said a few paragraphs ago, if you believe high-rises drive out everything else you should spend more time in Manhattan. (Chicago too!)


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