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Density Without High-Rises?

Edward T. McMahon / May 11 2012

For Release Friday, May 11, 2012
Citiwire.net

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.

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

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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. 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?

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. 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. 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.”


Edward T. McMahon is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C. The opinions expressed are his own.

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24 Comments

  1. Tim Sweetser
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Here in San Francisco, density of housing units is high, but rent is even higher! We desperately need high rise apartment buildings – more supply is the only way to bring rents down.

  2. Alex Lantsberg
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    A significant point often overlooked by high rise uber-alles folks is their high cost. Highrises make density thoroughly unaffordable except to the well heeled few. A fine grained approach built on compact streets and smaller (and often wood framed) buildings is not only both more affordable but often far more interesting.

  3. Posted May 11, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for speaking out about the conflation of “high-density” with “high-rise.” Most U.S. urban areas have such low densities overall that there’s little need for high-rises to increase density.
    Ironic that the movement for urban farms is taking place simultaneously with this movement for more skyscrapers – which, of course, will shade out the sunlight that most food plants need to thrive.

  4. Posted May 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Remember that a city of hi-rises is a city of landlords or condo associations that confer disproportionate wealth on the few and high costs on the many. That is why high density single homes or small South Beach type midrise developments are far more democratic in a Jacksonian sense. If the public really knew the profits investors seek on large projects (and realize in the good times) they would then know what lifestyle choices are about- money that you have surrendered to the man! It is a perpetual conspiracy between city treasurers and big developers.

  5. Marc Brenman
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    I don’t agree with this: “we do need more compact, walkable higher density communities.” Why do we “need” them? As to citing Georgetown and the French Quarter as models, who can afford to live there? McMahon writes pipe dreams for the rich. And the U Street corridor in DC? It’s turned into a row of bars.

  6. Posted May 12, 2012 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    Great point Ed. You can say it many times. You don’t need high rises to have high density. Density has become a cover building high rises, which are often predatory in their overall dynamic. They steal views, kill street life around them, often have poor urban frontages, etc. There is no shortage of examples of great urbanism with relatively low heights. One solution makes sense to me: just have clear, right height limits. Period.

  7. Posted May 12, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Tim Sweetser: It is very doubtful more hi-rises would lower rents. Land costs rise exponentially as cities grow. Costs per SF high. What would lower rents would be subsidies or enormous population decline- the latter not likely for where you live!

  8. P. Joice
    Posted May 14, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    “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…”

    But the look-a-like glass and steel 10 story buildings built all over Washington DC are ok? There are no free lunches, and when you limit height there are costs.

  9. Posted May 14, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    The proponents of the move back to cities are enabled by a high rise vision as well as a high ROI. Discourse on the subject touts sustainable advantages of transit oriented development (TOD) placing the developments in cities or in fringe suburban centers lucky to have a few rail stops. There is much of value in the movement, there are many more forces that require new choices, but, what no one is talking about is the cost. The theory tested that more units per acre achieves economy is dramatically disproven by the exigencies of development cost – everything from the cost of land land to the support services is greater as the locus of activity competes in a more finite area. This does not take into account the concomitant change in accomodation – fewer windows, potentially less privacy, no yard for pet or garden, no sunlight at all on the north face. Admittedly, lifestyle preferences of another generation include and exclude differences. However unpopular conventional family life, it may yet persist for those with children. A townhouse scenario might provide real home for families of the future, but the costs for these in the HD neighborhoods are prohibitive – your (tiny) entry level townhouse in Georgetown starts at $1 million, or to replace the 2,500 square foot house and yard in the nearby burbs with a townhouse, $2.5 million! Better options in other cities, sure, but in all areas the miserable burbs still seem to score higher on the value scale, if affordability still has a place in value assessment. Nothing can beat living and working nearby, but that is a paradigm still not solved by density of development. The beauty of urban dwelling, on the other hand, being on top of all the amenities, is a delight, when you can afford it. But the choice of many will remain in prototypes other than what is achievable in denser cities or TOD’s. Affordability will continue to dictate many of those choices. where .

  10. Mike Conte
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    Agree.

    And Paris has higher density than NYC, but with almost no buildings taller than 6 stories.

  11. Mark Loeb
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I appreciate McMahon’s thought-provoking articles. The first question that came to mind when reading this one was, are we entering a neo-Corbusier era where cities are “machines for living”? Our headlong rush into techno-triumphalism (as Kustler calls it) is potentially dehumanizing the human habitat. McMahon’s is a cautionary warning.

    But more to the point of the article it the false choice of late 20th Century development between sprawl and urban. The sweet spot is in between. The low-rise, dense, walkable districts that McMahon describes have weathered the real estate storm remarkably well. In addition, consumer sentiment (RCLCO) suggest that there is a high affinity for these types of places. Thus the market has spoken in their favor. The vexing question is why haven’t developers and builder responded?

  12. Michael Lewyn
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    As I understand McMahon’s argument, it is:
    1. Some places are dense and don’t have high-rises. Therefore
    2. No one should be allowed to build anything higher than the typical DC 5-10 story office building, because
    3. If anything taller than 10 stories is ever built, the city will be taken over by “high-rise mania.”
    I fail to see why conclusion 2 or conclusion 3 follows from premise 1.

  13. Danny Handelman
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Higher density dwelling units does not necessarily result in smaller dwelling units; it reflects, in part, the fact that zoning, impact fees and property taxes combine to make it more profitable for builders to build outward rather than upward, resulting in demand to live close to amenities being greater than the supply. The segregation of uses also results in higher transportation costs, and places the burden of municipal finance disproportionately on residents, rather than the businesses, because there are comparatively few commercial purposes, reducing the number of businesses, even though businesses have a greater ability to pay property taxes than residents, in general.

  14. Posted May 15, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I think that it is nearly always a mistake to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. I think there are places where humanely designed high-rises make a great deal of sense and can contribute to a unique sense of place. Vancouver has done wonder with standards for slender, well-spaced towers built over low- to mid-rise podiums. Vancouver has remained North America’s most livable city, even as it has created an incredibly urban neighborhood and a bold, futuristic skyline.

    Yet there are also places where we should arguably not be seeking similar high-rise density. New Orleans’s French Quarter is a great example. A historic neighborhood like San Francisco’s North Beach may be another.

    Part of the problem, though, is that planners have become so constrained in terms of where even three or four story buildings are permitted, that sometimes it is all but necessary to put high-rises in certain strategic locations. It would be great if everywhere within 0.5-mile of a transit station could be zoned for 4–6 story buildings, but this is simply not realistic. Until more neighborhoods welcome low-rise density into their midst, strategic high-rise density will remain an important tool for achieving desired transit and sustainability outcomes.

  15. Posted May 15, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    The problem with capping height on buildings is that you are also capping supply. And when you do that in a high demand area, rents and cost of living skyrocket. This is why Paris and DC are some of the most expensive places in the world to live. In Philly, their historic Rittenhouse neighborhood is actually starting to de-densify because the uber-rich are turning multi-family townhouses into single family townhouses. This is a common occurence – look at Greenwich Village in NYC. Due to that area’s height restrictions, the neighborhood is losing population and de-densifying due to the rich combining buildings to create mega-mansions in the City.

    Paris recently removed its height restrictions because there is high demand to live there and nowhere to house an influx of new people. And you can bet that any mid- or high-rise built there will be appropriately designed at the ground level. This article assumes all high-rises kill the ground level public realm, but this simply isn’t the case – high-rises can be designed well and provide human scales just like low-rise buildings can.

    Cities must figure out a way to make themselves more accessible to more types of people at differing income levels – singles, seniors, families, etc. Its unfortunate that DC, NYC, and Paris have become playgrounds for the rich. Higher densities, through high-rises in some cases, is a way to combat this issue and maintain healthy housing supplies.

  16. Anthony Harvath
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Mr. McMahon is correct that “city” densities can be achieved without high rises. But just try it. Here in Chicago we have oodles of open space that could be developed in back yards, vacant lots, in place of nondescript low-rises, parking lots…everywhere. But because of NIMBYism such space is virtually impossible to develop as McMahon envisions. He sees blaming the NIMBY’s who oppose towers as misguided—but they oppose everything!

    Stating that “buildings rising from 5 to 12 stories can create even higher density” is right on…but runs counter to zoning in all but the most central neighborhoods of American cities, including Chicago. So, if a developer must fight for a variance, it makes much more sense to do so for a megaproject than for a mid-rise.

    Unfortunately, McMahon doesn’t address the real problem in urban development.

  17. Neal Peirce
    Posted May 16, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Readers will find an interesting pick up by Richard Florida on Ed McMahon’s article — on the Atlantic Cities website:
    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/neighborhoods/2012/05/limits-density/2005/

  18. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    It seems logical that America needs more density as the aging population needs more walkable communities and places where public transportation is more accessible.

  19. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    See also news about a new survey released by the National Association of Realtors:
    http://www.boiseweekly.com/Cobweb/archives/2012/02/15/survey-majority-of-americans-want-walkable-neighborhoods
    Survey: Majority of Americans Want Walkable Neighborhoods

  20. Posted May 20, 2012 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    I very much agree with McMahon. I enjoy some high-rise buildings – but they don’t work well as places for families to live in. Here in Adelaide, South Australia, the inner-city development of Christie Walk has a mix of houses and apartments of 2, 3 and 5 storeys on just half an acre. It’s covered with vegetation (includes a roof garden), is highly sustainable, and boasts a strong, thriving community ranging in age from 1 to 80+. It was a community initiative and it works – but do you think anyone is taking notice? Talk about ‘density’ here, and the knee-jerk response is to think highrise. I think half the problem is that low/mid-rise high density requires a lot more design effort, and most developers (and the financing systems) like sausage-machine extrusions of repetitive floor plans because they’re easy to produce. (I have to declare an interest here – I’m the architect of CW)

  21. Nathan Landau
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    The concept that needs to be remembered here is density gradient. The grandly renamed New Urbanist version is “transect.” The idea is that densities do and should slope down from the center of the city, or from a transit station. With that idea in mind you can have highrises–because there are definitely people who like them, townhouses, small lot detached homes etc.

    Problems come in when the density is in the wrong place–e.g. in a row on Wilshire Boulevard in west Los Angeles with single family homes behind them. Unduly restrictive limits on development can also cause problems. If nothing can be more than 10 stories, then there will be tremendous pressure to make everything 10 stories. Regulating by height rather than bulk causes particular problems–the builder wants to build a shorter, fatter building rather than a taller, slimmer one that might well be more visually appealing.

  22. Chris Beck
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    My hometown, Portland (Oregon), is often touted as a model in urban planning and land use. But even there we can find an unfortunate manifestation of exactly what Ed describes. Adjacent to the central business district, Portland’s South Waterfront District was created on a large vacant industrial area. Unfortunately, the easy money of the Bush era real estate bubble allowed local developers to convince city officials into allowing a handful of 25-story shimmering glass and largely uninteresting towers (we didn’t even get a starchitect design) in this unproven and undeveloped district. The grossly out-of-scale buildings popped up in short order during the condo speculation phase, and then the real estate bubble burst. Now the district is saddled with wind tunnels and dark places along the river and a scale that simply doesn’t fit Portland’s more human approach in other areas. It’s more complicated than all of this, and the district may some day become vibrant due to its proximity to the medical school via an aerial tram (wealthy doctors like living in tall glass buildings perhaps). But Portland got greedy here, or its politicians forgot their bearings, and got sucked into skyrises (not fully understanding the various types of more desirable density) rather than an alternative of shorter buildings and row houses that I believe would have attracted more residents to the area over the short and long term. It’s one of the last places I would choose to live in lovely Portland, even though the district has a new street car, a tramway to the hills, and extensive riverfront (though, the riverfront park has yet to be built, surprise surprise, and the original developers have all been foreclosed on). Portland suffers a bit from blind self-adulation when it comes to planning, and they proved in South Waterfront that they don’t have a monopoly on good urban design and appropriate density.

    Thanks, Ed, for raising this issue.

  23. Posted May 21, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    So glad to see this point of view broadcast. It is wonderful to see it put across so clearly. For more trouble with high rises, see E. P. Fowler, “Faulty Towers,” Alternatives Magazine, Winter 2008. (Also on http://www.terryfowler,ca) For ways of measuring use density as opposed simply to population density, see Fowler, Building Cities That Work, McGill Queen’s University Press, 1992.

  24. Posted June 15, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Not mentioned directly in any of the comments is a practical, albeit undiscussed, way to increase density in low-rise cities – adding single units to family or multi-family houses. Examples of how to increase density has been well presented by Bill Kreager (http://www.aecom.com) in his “Honey I Shrunk the Lots” presentation to a number of Northwest cities and towns. By re-engaging alleys as useful thru-ways and using ends of blocks in creative ways, a neighborhood could double or even triple its density, and still preserve its backyards and character at the same or near to the same heights. These additions hook into local infrastructure (lowering development costs) and if the city provides even small incentives, can be a viable solution to the housing crunch. The trick seems to be creating enough interest and incentives to implement the approach in more than one neighborhood at a time. The other positive gain is the income diversity and social mix achieved by having single dwellers added to family settings. Beyond mother-in-law suites, the approach also emphasizes that design for privacy, accessibility, energy efficiency, stormwater management, neighborhood security and parking can be achieved with good design. The “tiny house” could be an answer to many of our urban futures.