There's a war happening within cities, and the battleground is the sky.
Cities in the US, including New York and Washington, are embroiled in debates about whether or not to lift height restrictions on buildings and skyscrapers. We've seen this battle happen elsewhere: In 2008, the fight for Prague's skyline was won by height enthusiasts, when City Hall approved a development project from ECM, to build high-rises of 104 meters and 75 meters in the Pankrác region, despite fears from UNESCO that this would hurt the city's placement on the World Heritage List. And in 2010, some districts in Paris had their height restrictions lifted, allowing new buildings (previously restricted at 121 feet) to be built up to 590 feet.
Now, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg is pushing to overhaul zoning laws in Midtown East that have placed height restrictions on buildings. And in Washington, Congress is considering overhauling rules that have restricted the height of buildings there for over a century (90 feet for residences; 130 feet for commercial buildings).
For all of these cities, the height issue was a heated one. It's no wonder, as there's much at stake. For architects and real estate developers, there's all of this vacant space in the sky they could be profiting from. For some urban planners, there's a fear of building ever-upward, shrouding city streets with shadows, eliminating light and openness.
In an effort to keep up with central business districts in the likes of Tokyo, Mayor Bloomberg, for his part, hopes to overhaul Midtown East's zoning restrictions by October 2013 (just before the next mayoral election and the official end of his reign as King of NYC) and for the city to begin granting building permits four years thereafter. According to his administration's proposal, "the top Class A tenants who have been attracted to the area in the past would begin to look elsewhere for space," if the city doesn't begin allowing taller towers.
Chrysler Building in Midtown East
The arguments against doing this in cities across the board are manifold. In an article in The New York Times about Midtown East, Councilman Daniel R. Garodnick was quoted as saying we need to account for the stress this will place on transportation (Midtown East runs on the Lexington Avenue line, which is already overstressed), sanitation, and safety.
Writing in defense of Washington's current height restrictions, Kaid Benfield, director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), argues that taller buildings can impair light quality and tree cover. He further cites Richard Florida's stance that "creative classes" -- the lifeblood of cities -- tend to congregate in low-rise areas, like Greenwich Village and SoHo.
Furthermore, after Hurricane Sandy left many in New York City stranded powerless in "smart" high-rise buildings, I question whether our cities are at this point equipped to handle life in the sky.
The thing is, facts are facts: More and more people are moving into cities with less and less space, so many believe the only place to build is up. As Carol Willis, founder of the Skyscraper Museum, recently told Future Cities, we need vertical density in order to sustain this growth. Antony Wood, executive director of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, takes this even a step further, claiming that the future is not just in taller buildings, but in connected skyscrapers, where everything horizontal goes vertical. "179,000 people are moving into cities every day... They've got to go to a vertical city," he told us in October.
If density is our destiny, can we achieve it without building taller towers? Some seem to think so. As Edward T. McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, writes in a blog, being dense (in the good sense!) can be more about clever planning:
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... 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 a New Yorker who lives in the kind of mid-rise walk-up described above, in a mixed neighborhood of high-, mid-, and low-rises, I don't think there's an easy answer here, nor can there possibly be one that applies across the board. But it's true that there is really no turning back from demolishing the small to build tall. So we'd better make sure we get this right.