Skyscrapers vs. sprawl?

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Crown of the Woolworth Building, in Lower Manhattan. (lussierphoto.com)

It is conventional wisdom that cities with lots of skyscrapers, such as New York City, are an ecofriendly bulwark against sprawl. Building up, it is said, avoids the need to build out. “Sprawl” is not just suburbia because suburbia can be nice. Inner rings of suburbia are often like the outer neighborhoods of a city. Sprawl is what much of suburbia has become – housing tracts choked by networks of highways and connectors that require you to have a car to go anywhere or do anything. And it’s not worth it, as the commercial roads are lined with shopping pods where, often, one must dip back out onto the road just to enter the next shopping pod over. What percentage of accidents take place in these areas? Are they legally required to be poorly planned? Or are suburban planners in league with the auto-repair industry?

While many American families who live in these territories have become accustomed to their face – oops! I meant fates! – in many cases it is because they arrived there from even less dulcet environments. The suburbs changed in recent decades from a sign of success for many families whose (mainly) fathers’ income enabled them to move out of crowded city neighborhoods before such places became chic. Today, the suburbs are more likely to be the only affordable place to live for families fleeing the inner city or dangerous overseas habitats. Suburbs are increasingly declassé. More and more of the wealthy, and especially the newly wealthy, forgo the suburbs for “historic districts” (neighborhoods built before 1950) or downtown skyscrapers.

That’s all now water under the bridge. What does it mean for the balance (if such a thing is possible) between cities and suburbs? Most people think that stacking families up in high-rise apartment buildings means minimizing the pressure that suburbia places on exurbia and the countryside (such of it that remains). This bit of conventional wisdom is partly true but not enough to warrant massive new investment in skycrapers.

A leading opponent of skyscrapers, Michael Mehaffy of Portland, Ore., and founder of the city think-tank Sustasis, has assembled an impressive report, “The Impacts of Tall Buildings: A Research Summary.” A key paragraph from its executive summary – which acknowledges that the value of tall buildings is mixed – identifies two major factors overlooked by those who consider major skyscraper cities to be “paragons of sustainability”:

But it’s often overlooked that tall buildings are only a fraction of all structures in these places, with the bulk of neighborhoods consisting of rowhouses, low-rise apartment buildings, and other much lower structures. They get their low-carbon advantages not only from density per se, but from an optimum distribution of daily amenities, walkability and access to transit, and other efficiencies of urban form.

 

The legal separation of civic functions (single-use zoning) is the distinguishing mark of the suburbs – tracing its roots to the removal of factories and mills from residential city neighborhoods. It is the return of mixed use to intown neighborhoods that has, at least in part, fueled the resurgence of downtown living in many American cities. The Mehaffy report’s eighth and final finding suggests that this, not skyscrapers, is the major reason why dense cities have become paragons of sustainability:

Tall buildings may not be compatible with the broader social and economic dimensions of sustainability, for “sustainability requires not only that we lessen our ecological impacts, but also that we create the urban and cultural frameworks in which we can attain full humanity, in contact with self, others, and nature. This might be the real reason that the tower seems an anachronism” (Peter Buchanan, Harvard Design Magazine, 2007).

 

My own opinion of towers is also mixed. I like the Woolworth Building and dislike the Seagram Building. I have not compiled a white paper filled with evidence for the proposition that sterile modernist towers impose a deadness on their surroundings that is not imposed by the surviving classical towers of the past, whose beauty still supplies an ineffable quality to life on the streets. I believe the proposition is self-evident. If developers, moving forward, were to embrace that ineffability of the classically beautiful skyscraper, then my doubts about this building type would be seriously deflated.

But that is, shall we say, highly unlikely. Mehaffy’s report was issued about a year ago but, with the accelerating rise of megatowers in Manhattan and elsewhere, the report’s sensible balance of thinking on skyscrapers, and its towering abundance of evidence, should become vital ammunition in the growing popular reaction against megatowers.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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