Global leaders in urban sustainability gather in Kuala Lumpur — and challenge conventional wisdom and “business as usual”
KUALA LUMPUR: This week I am at the World Urban Forum, with a focus on implementing the New Urban Agenda — the landmark document on sustainable urban development agreed to by all 193 member states of the United Nations. There is a heavy focus here on evidence-based approaches, and on research into action by leading universities. We are here as part of our research unit, the Centre for the Future of Places at KTH Royal Institute of Technology (where one of us is a senior researcher, and another has been a visiting scholar). We have been involved in a partnership with UN-Habitat to develop language on the importance of public space, which is now secured in the New Urban Agenda — but now the emphasis is on implementation.
One of the key challenges is in thinking through current assumptions and beliefs, and assessing which are sound and which are not. Given the recent debates in Portland, we were struck by the session below (which occurs tomorrow as we write this). We have also seen other work challenging much of the current conventional wisdom about urban sustainability and livability (as we have written about in this blog). Surely we need to examine our own assumptions in the light of evidence, and be open to debate and challenge. Surely we need to be more willing to learn from others around the world, and share our own lessons learned as well?
A more extensive report from the World Urban Forum will follow soon! Meanwhile, here is the listing for the session that caught our eye:
Anatomy of Density: Why Tall Buildings Can’t Solve the Problem of Urban Growth Monday 12 February 2018, 17:00 – 18:00
Organization: NYU Stern Urbanization Project
This session will focus on several exciting new developments in the study of density. Much effort has been made to establish the importance of density in addressing a range of ills, from long commutes to climate change to the obesity epidemic. By comparison, relatively little effort has gone into the study of the components of density, the factors that affect it, and the steps that can be taken to increase it. Moving beyond the simple assumption that cities need infill, growth controls, and higher buildings, this session explores three primary factors that make up the density of a city – Floor Area Occupancy, Building Height, and Residential coverage – and shows that density is, in fact, the result of seven components, each of which can be affected by regulatory changes or infrastructure investments. These components will soon be measured in the full United Nations sample of 200 cities, but the simple explication of this new understanding of density can help point the way toward the creation of more compact, inclusive, and sustainable cities.
The expensive skyscrapers represent “the wrong properties Londoners don’t need.” Is Portland headed down the same path?
More cautionary news is on offer for Portland’s “irrationally exuberant” fans of new tall buildings in the core. Simply adding units is not an effective strategy for affordability: it matters where the units are, how much they cost to build, and what are the dynamics of global real estate markets. Word to the wise?
The Guardian newspaper reports this week that “half of new-build luxury London flats fail to sell” and “developers have 420 towers in pipeline despite up to 15,000 high-end flats still on the market.”
The article continues,
The swanky flats, complete with private gyms, swimming pools and cinema rooms, are lying empty as hundreds of thousands of would-be first-time buyers struggle to find an affordable home.
The total number of unsold luxury new-build homes, which are rarely advertised at less than £1m, has now hit a record high of 3,000 units…
Builders started work last year on 1,900 apartments priced at more than £1,500 per sq ft, but only 900 have sold, according to property data experts Molior London. A typical high-end three-bedroom apartment consists of around 2,000 sq ft, which works out at a sale price of £3m.
There are an extra 14,000 unsold apartments on the market for between £1,000-£1,500 per sq ft. The average price per sq ft across the UK is £211.
Molior says it would take at least three years to sell the glut of ultra-luxury flats if sales continue at their current rate and if no further new-builds are started.
However, ambitious property developers have a further 420 residential towers (each at least 20 storeys high) in the pipeline, says New London Architecture and GL Hearn.
Henry Pryor, a property buying agent, says the London luxury new-build market is “already overstuffed but we’re just building more of them”…
Some developers have delayed construction of projects, while others have taken properties off the market. All 10 of the apartments at the top of the Shard – priced at up to £50m each – remain unsold more than five years after the Duke of York and the former prime minister of Qatar officially opened “Europe’s first vertical city”.
“We’re going to have loads of empty and part-built posh ghost towers,” he says. “They were built as gambling chips for rich overseas investors, but they are no longer interested in the London casino and have moved on.”
Steven Herd, founder and chief executive of MyLondonHome, an agency that specialises in new-build homes for investment, says his firm is struggling under the weight of overseas investors who bought in the last couple of years and are desperate to sell.
He says hundreds of Asian investors who had bought London developments off-plan in 2015-16 in the hope of making a quick profit by selling apartments on closer to completion have instead lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. “They intended to flip [buy and sell on] the apartments and make big profits, but it hasn’t worked out like that, and now they are trying to get out at the smallest possible loss.”
He adds that in one case a Russian investor bought an off-plan property in 2014 for £3.1m, but couldn’t afford to complete and sold it for £2.55m.
Herd says the [developments are] “the wrong properties that Londoners don’t need”.
“We’d be much better off with decent quality but lower-spec homes built for actual Londoners. What’s the point in having private cinema rooms that sit empty and resident’s swimming pools with no one swimming in them; it just seems wrong.”
“The big one” will certainly be very bad. Our actions beforehand could be worse.
Something terrible is going to happen in the Northwest, including Portland. FEMA estimates that some thirteen thousand people could die – many more than the two thousand in Hurricane Katrina. The aftermath could leave our region similarly stranded and transformed beyond recognition.
This event — a major earthquake — could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in 400 years, or at any point beforehand. Prudence suggests that we take reasonable steps to be prepared.
For some, that means demolishing — or performing huge expensive seismic upgrades — to thousands of buildings, many of them low-rise historic structures. If they are demolished, they will have to be replaced with new buildings.
It’s enough to make some architects salivate.
But for just about everyone else, it’s hysteria of the worst sort. Of course deliberate steps need to be taken — especially around preparedness. What should people do before, during and after the event? What is the safest place to be during the event, and the safest way out of a building after the event? How can the worst effects of such an event be mitigated? What are the most dangerous structures – typically unreinforced mid-rise buildings, or buildings with poorly reinforced concrete roofs and floors that are likely to “pancake” — and how can we take steps to retrofit them?
We need to understand the risks, just as we understand any risk in life. We buy life insurance, and companies are willing to sell it to us, because it’s possible to accurately quantify the risk of a person dying in any one year. Many people pay perhaps hundreds of dollars a year each into a pool, from which a few people are paid millions of dollars much less frequently — and the companies are able to accurately quantify the risks and stay in business.
What’s the probability of “the big one” in the next 50 years? A recent study put the maximum at as much as 20% — meaning there is an 80% probability that it will NOT happen in the next 50 years.
By contrast, at current levels we already kill about one person per day on Oregon roads. At that rate, in the same 50 years we WILL kill over 18,000 — in other words, more than “the big one,” whose probability of occurrence in the same time interval is much lower.
Yet we don’t stop people from driving. We take all reasonable measures — traffic safety, air bags, and so on — and we accept the risk. We see it as a price we pay for the benefits of mobility.
Right now we have many thousands of beautiful, historic, affordable homes, apartments and other buildings, many of which are low-rise. (They include the classic “courtyard apartments” where many Portland residents live, including this author’s own residence.) These buildings often have wood-frame cores and exterior masonry walls. The exteriors could indeed slough off, but the entire structures are unlikely to collapse. Those who take shelter in their central hallways, and then exit as soon as practical and safe, will likely survive.
Should we require all of the owners of these buildings to perform very expensive seismic upgrades in a short period of time? Will we trigger a wave of demolitions of some of our most affordable, beautiful, enduring — sustainable — structures, replaced by many more and (let’s face it) uglier buildings? (Sorry, architects – but our professional win-loss score nowadays is there for all to see.)
Is that smart? Well, it’s profitable for some — and that’s a dangerous distortional force on good judgment, and the best interests of our city.
For more on this, the Northwest Examiner has an extensive article this month:
Paradoxically, sometimes reducing lanes means better traffic flow — AND better livability and more transportation choices
Portland planners like to show off the city’s many progressive achievements. But one place they don’t show off is West Burnside, especially the segment west of I405. We’ve heard some folks refer to this stretch of dirty, dangerous, ugly road as an “open car sewer.” That seems about right.
Ironically, this stretch is not even particularly efficient at handling traffic through movement. That’s because periodic left turns at unsignalized intersections obstruct through movement in the left-hand lanes, and frequent bus stops obstruct through movement in the right-hand lanes, causing significant congestion. Pedestrians also have the right of way at the many unsignalized intersections, stopping traffic in all lanes — and putting the pedestrians in considerable danger from careless motorists.
The issue has been considered before. Over a decade ago, the City studied alternatives and developed a plan for a “couplet” system. West Burnside would become a one-way eastbound street, and West Couch would take the remaining westbound traffic (similar to what happens now just east of the river). Because of the tendency of traffic to move fast on these one-ways, the plan also included a new streetcar line on both streets.
But that plan is now on indefinite hold. And in any case, the couplet was never intended to extend west of 16th Avenue, so the stretch in the photos above would remain more or less the same. (You can read the 2006 report here.)
So what else can be done, then? We can certainly take a lesson from other cities that have adopted progressive reforms. One street that seems to have around the same traffic as Burnside (22,000 cars per day) is La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego. A project there known as a “road diet” kept the same capacity of vehicles, but cut down crashes by 90 percent, and did other very good things.
It sounded a lot like the problems we have on West Burnside today:
The project was designed to transform a wide, automobile-oriented thoroughfare to a pedestrian-friendly, neighborhood center…. [There was a] lack of comfortable public spaces, and financial stagnation of area businesses, notes restreets.org. “The wide, heavily trafficked road functioned as a barrier that divided the neighborhood physically and psychologically’…
So the plan was actually to remove lanes, and make the remaining lanes work just as well or better — as well as providing more attractive sidewalks and public spaces, and better ability to handle walking, biking, buses, and other ways of getting around:
The traffic count remained approximately the same (23,000 vehicles per day before, 22,000 after), but walking, bicycling, transit use, on-street parking and retail sales all climbed to much higher levels, the city reports. Retail sales rose 30 percent and noise levels dropped 77 percent…
That all sounds good — but how is it possible that removing lanes won’t result is massive traffic delays? Our friend Dan Burden, consultant on the project, explains:
“Motorists,” Burden reported in The San Diego Union- Tribune in February 2017, “understandably dreaded this change before it was made. But they found that instead of waiting 24 seconds for a pedestrian to cross 70 feet of road, they now only wait 3–4 seconds, or don’t have to wait at all. Businesses that feared the loss of customers arriving in cars actually improved their trade. … Today motorists are getting to their destinations in less time, because they aren’t stopping.”
Some fear that Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement may be preparing to take the final symbolic step in eviscerating its pioneering system of geographic representation by neighborhoods
The announcement that came from the Office of Neighborhood Involvement earlier this week seemed innocent – a harmless bit of re-branding, perhaps. But given the troubled history of that city agency — a scathing audit that found a “trifecta” of problems, and the Mayor’s declaration last year that ONI was “most in need of reform” — the new message seemed oddly cosmetic.
“ONI’s name is changing to better reflect our work and the people and place we serve now and for subsequent generations. We’d like you to participate in the renaming! ONI, like Portland, has changed and grown over the years…”
Portland has indeed grown — and so have its challenges, of course.
But a half-century ago, the city also saw many of the same kinds of challenges. Today, as then, the city is seeing pressures of rapid in-migration and population growth, demolition of historic fabric, lack of equitable opportunity for many residents, disruptive new development, and treatment of some neighborhoods as “expendable” — creating shocking patterns of displacement in favor of “urban renewal” to make way for an influx of often wealthier new residents.
In those days it was the grass-roots neighborhood activists who championed a better path for the city — preserving and building on our urban heritage, limiting destructive new development, protecting and revitalizing existing neighborhoods, modulating (but not stopping) growth, and preserving and revitalizing the existing affordable homes and small businesses. Those efforts helped usher in a remarkable urban renaissance, making Portland the envy of many other cities. We all enjoy the legacy of that era today.
That spirit of purpose and unity needs to be rekindled.
For today, an ugly new tone of divisiveness has entered the city — and neighborhoods and their associations are increasingly attacked, not as allies and defenders of Portland’s best urban qualities, but as old, rich, NIMBY, and worse. That’s far from fair — or wise.
Of course everyone in the city must do more to right the injustices of the past, and every neighborhood association should do more to be more inclusive, representative and transparent. But it appears to this observer that the City wants to go far beyond that. It wants to throw neighborhoods under the bus.
Perhaps the pride is not so great any more. As we wrote on this blog last May, the City seems to have decided that it’s time to marginalize neighborhood associations, rather than to improve and strengthen them.
Allan Classen, publisher of the Northwest Examiner newspaper, has been closely following the developments at ONI, and he isn’t reassured by the new proposals:
“ONI is creating its own ‘shadow structure’ that replaces or diminishes the role of neighborhood associations. Because ONI controls funding, they can give their designated ‘inclusionary’ entities as much power as they choose. Any neighborhood association that squawks can be labeled racist or selfish. The best defense is to identify this subterfuge for what it is, and get that message out so broadly that neighborhood associations across the city will grasp what’s happening to them.”
The principal tool of marginalization is called a “non-geographic community.” As we wrote, under ONI’s new approach,
…“non-geographic communities” [will] be placed into competition with the neighborhood associations, in a heavy-handed attempt to create a more inclusive system. The trouble is, who gets representation, and how much? Who selects these “non-geographic communities”? The City, of course. But it is far too easy to put one’s fingers on the scale, perhaps without realizing it, and allow a subtle form of corruption to influence the results – biased towards a favored group, or maybe even a favored industry….
At the same time, the City needs to ask itself a basic question: does it believe in local grass-roots democracy at all? In the fundamental concept of geographic representation at all?
We suggest that citizens ask the new director, Suk Rhee, to carefully consider the following four points before going ahead with any plans for changes — to names, or to missions:
Portland’s geographic-based neighborhood association system is pioneering and important within our city culture, and needs to be strengthened and streamlined, not weakened and marginalized. But this is what has happened, and still seems to be happening. What can be done to reverse this trend?
We appreciate Suk Rhee’s efforts effort to put ONI’s affairs in order. However, given an audit that revealed systemic problems, we always have to ask ourselves if we’re “re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic.” Is ONI a dysfunctional bureau that is still failing to serve and empower neighborhoods? What deeper reforms are still needed?
How can we strengthen the principle of “subsidiarity”? Under that principle, the city is supposed to be subsidiary to its constituents, including the neighborhoods — not the other way around. But today the City acts too much like a supervisor of the neighborhoods, using the coalition system as a kind of leash. How can this inversion of the subsidiarity principle be fixed?
In the interest of offering constructive alternatives, I’d like to suggest a new model. Perhaps it’s time now to consider a binary system of two entirely separate City entities.
One entity might be an office of citizen involvement, commissioned to perform outreach and participation from the widest possible constituency of citizens. It would be charged with empowerment — not just tokenistic representation — for formerly excluded people, and challenging policies that perpetrate the injustices of the City’s shameful past. (And sometimes, present.)
The other entity might be a “council of neighborhoods” that has a more formal voice in city affairs. Its members, the neighborhood associations, could be directly funded through participatory budgeting, with support services chosen by the neighborhoods from a pool of city-vetted contractors. There are good international models for this kind of “subsidiarity” in action, and Portland could draw from them — and once again assert its own leadership in this area.
One thing is for sure — more than a name change is needed. Yet the name change may be revealing of the true nature of the problem. Not many people remember now that ONI’s first name was the “Office of Neighborhood Associations,” or ONA. Then it became the “Office of Neighborhood Involvement,” reflecting a more diluted relationship with the associations. We will soon see whether the word “neighborhood” is dropped altogether.
Without deeper reforms, it might be more accurate to simply re-name the agency “ONO” — short for the “Office of Neighborhood Oblivion.”
We’ve also pointed to resources that are available, including new tools and approaches that are emerging in other cities, and we’ve encouraged the city to work harder to identify, develop and share these lessons, using a more progressive, evidence-based, peer-to-peer approach. But these recommendations can be lost amid the criticisms, and the sometimes defensive and heated reactions they invoke. So to begin the New Year on a constructive note, we summarize recommendations to the City in five “key messages:”
Think more polycentrically. Stop over-concentrating on the city core, which is already over-heated and in danger of being “killed with kindness”. Recognize that most of the people in the Portland region – and therefore, most of the human and ecological needs – are in the vast majority of the area outside the central city core. Most of these people do not live in the core and never will. Instead of imagining that social justice demands that we jam anyone who wants to come into the core, re-focus on making the other parts of the region equally high-quality, sustainable, livable, and just — along with the core. Revitalize the multi-modal “centers and corridors” approach throughout the region – not just in the central city. (I immodestly point to our project of Orenco Station as a partially successful transformation of that kind offering very useful lessons – but much more is needed.)
Build on past successes. Portland does offer remarkably positive examples for livable neighborhoods and cities – including the beautiful livable streetcar neighborhoods of the early 20th Century, and the urban renaissance of the late 20th The city needs to build on these successes (as it did in the late 20th Century renaissance). It needs to show a healthier skepticism to the siren songs of current fashionable (and profitable, for some) thinking, including “build baby build,”“voodoo urbanism,” and other follies. Recognize too, that as important as green technologies are, the most important “green” aspect of cities is the inherent sustainability of a walkable, livable, beautiful, enduring neighborhood.
Resist “silver bullets.” This is a dangerous time for urban development, and Portland is far from immune to the dangers. Enormous economic pressures, including increasingly global real estate capital, are causing over-heating of our city cores, resulting in terrible problems of gentrification, loss of affordability, displacement, growing inequality, and loss of diversity. This trend is especially shameful for Portland, with its overtly racist history. At the same time, we need to resist “silver bullet” solutions that produce only tokenistic benefits, while exacerbating the underlying dynamics. One of the worst is the self-serving mythology that has arisen around tall buildings – the ultimate silver bullets, or “silver skyscrapers.” This is in spite of what the evidence actually shows, and what thoughtful observers like the ULI’s Ed McMahon have told us. There is no replacement for a well-connected, accessible, polycentric city.
We’re becoming much too credulous about simplistic, tokenistic and self-serving approaches that demonize and divide residents, while empowering those whose interests are not those of the city as a whole. We’re letting ourselves be lulled into believing professionally dubious ideas that have more to do with the early 20th Century than the early 21st. But they are profitable, and therein lies the danger – as always, money is a potentially corrupting motivation.
The best thing we can do in the New Year, I suggest, is to re-connect with our strengths, with our urban heritage and our legacy of grassroots activism. Resist fads, “flavors of the month,” siren songs that take us in the wrong direction. Recognize the enormous asset that we do have, in our urban pattern, our mixed use fabric, our increasingly diverse transportation choices, and our splendid built legacy. With these assets and the new generation of tools and resources that are now emerging, we have what we need to build a better city.
One year later, we assess the road to implementation of this watershed agreement, and our own challenges and opportunities ahead.
On December 23, we will pass the one-year anniversary of the historic passage — adopted by acclamation by 193 countries — of the “New Urban Agenda,” the outcome document of the global Habitat III conference last year. This agreement was a major watershed in international urban development policy — placing human life, health, equity and well-being at the top of urban priorities, and establishing a “new paradigm,” in the words of Secretary-General Joan Clos, in our ways of thinking about, and acting on, cities, towns, and other settlements, for the benefit of all.
A central emphasis in the New Urban Agenda is on livability and quality of life — goals that Portland has been pursuing for many years. Like Portland, the NUA places great emphasis on a well-connected polycentric region; on great walkable streets and public spaces; on transportation choice, including walking, biking, transit and yes, the car (though eliminating car dependency); on sustainable use of energy and resources; on leveraging heritage to build on the beauty of the city, and add to its livability; and on equitable access and expansion of life opportunities for all.
This is what great cities do best — as Jane Jacobs described, it is what a city like New York can do by taking penniless immigrants from Italy or Poland or Ireland, and turning many of them into prosperous middle-class shopkeepers and entrepreneurs and professionals, or, perhaps later, great scientists or artists.
Now, however, we are all aware of the failures of cities — for at least some of their residents, and as the evidence shows, ultimately for all of their residents — to provide equitable opportunity for advancement and enjoyment of the city’s multiple benefits. This is a threat for all, because as Luis Bettencourt and others have demonstrated, cities are economic and social networks that get their strength from the number of connections; the more “plugged in” everyone is, the better. But conversely, the more some people and parts of the city are excluded, fragmented, degraded, then the more the city as a whole is dragged down, ultimately spiraling into a condition of economic stagnation and decline — a “dark age ahead” as Jane Jacobs put it.
Portland is struggling with these lessons as much as any city. As we have written about frequently on this blog, there are strategies that can reverse this kind of decline, and catalyze in cities what Jane Jacobs called “the seeds of their own regeneration.” At the same time, there are many dangers in our recent ways of thinking and acting too — as we have also written about — that focus too much on simplistic,”silver bullet” solutions and self-interested “supply-side” thinking.
Yet Portland is clearly a leader in some important areas of the New Urban Agenda, at least by US standards — in coordinated regional planning, integrated transportation and “mixed-modes”, walkable human scale, preserving and building on our own history, and — more an accident of history, perhaps — exhibiting an excellent example of well-connected, walkable urban forms and types.
In that sense, Portland can be an important “test bed” for the New Urban Agenda, as all eyes turn to implementation. How can we share our lessons with other cities, and learn from them as they learn from us? What are our mistakes, and what can we learn from them? What are the tools and strategies that show promise, what have we learned from them, and how can we share them? How can we manage the corrosive forces of global economics and the urban “tragedy of the commons”?
Here is where the biggest challenges remain. How can we change “business as usual” — destructive patterns of inequality, fragmentation, and unsustainable development? How can we create new feedback loops, as Jane Jacobs also advised, to factor in “externalities” like ecological destruction and social exclusion, and provide more financial incentives for creating and sustaining good-quality settlements? How can we reform the current failing “operating system for growth,” by reforming the codes, models, laws, standards, financial incentives and disincentives, and all the other elements that make up our urbanization systems?
And especially, how can we use, and share, our existing knowledge base to do so?
Portland is already operating one of the most helpful laboratories in meeting these global challenges — especially so since practices in the United States are, for better or worse, frequently copied in other parts of the world. We should surely continue to act locally, as we think, and share, more globally. The more connected we are with the efforts of others, the more we can help, and be helped.
When 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:
Does density always require high rises?
Are historic neighborhoods adequately protected from incompatible new construction?
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?
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.”
Another cautionary tale about tall buildings, vertical gated communities, foreign capital, and oligarchs, from Portland’s over-envied big-sister city of Vancouver, B.C.
A recent post on this site noted a new proposal for two towers in Portland, one of which would be almost 1,000 feet tall. What would that look like? One comparison is to the current second-tallest building in Vancouver, at “only” 616 feet — the Trump International Hotel and Tower, containing 217 apartments and 147 hotel rooms.
Some civic-minded architects, planners and land use activists in Portland believe that tall buildings might be an effective strategy to add units, increase supply, improve affordable housing, and conserve farmland.
Following this logic, the City has agreed that taller is better, and the Central City 2035 Plan does raise heights significantly in a number of places in the core. (The site of the proposed 1,000 foot tower is currently zoned for 75 feet, but that will change to 400 feet under CC 2035 — or perhaps 1,000 feet, if the latest proposal is approved.)
All of this will surely help with accommodating housing demand, conserving farmland, and improving affordability, right?
On the evidence from Vancouver — and other places too — we’d better think again.
As we pointed out in an earlier blog post, even the irrationally exuberant expectations of the biggest tall-building proponents fall far short of what the region’s actual demand for housing is likely to be. That leaves the majority of the problem where it has always been — in the suburban jurisdictions, where over 73% of the region’s residents live. It’s a more urgent priority, from a regional policy perspective, to focus on more sustainable (and affordable) urbanization there. Secondarily we can concentrate on the suburban areas within the city, where another large portion of the region increasingly lives (often displaced there by higher costs in the core).
From a sustainability perspective, the core is already relatively urbanized — although it can certainly benefit from what our friend Patrick Condon has called “gentle densification.” (We could point to a number of new well-designed low-rise and mid-rise apartment buildings as examples, as we discussed in a previous blog post. On the other hand, we could also unfortunately point to very incompatible, disruptive projects too… and ham-handed, foolishly divisive efforts to cram inappropriate new buildings down the throats of historic neighborhoods, as we have also written about.)
What about affordability? There are two problems: cost of construction, and market dynamics. Tall buildings are inherently much more expensive to construct, which means that they will likely sell (or rent) for considerably more than older existing buildings. (Evidence shows this is almost always the case.) We can set aside affordable units and use other kinds of “inclusionary zoning” — but that means the “market-rate” housing is going to be even more expensive, fueling even more extreme inequality.
“We’ve done it time and time again — when you combine a great location with incredible architecture and incredible amenities … it’s sort of a formula for success.”
He was speaking of the eye-popping sales prices for the 214 luxury units in Trump Tower Vancouver, which sold at an average $1,610 per sq. ft. — the highest rate in Vancouver, or for that matter, all of Canada. One single unit sold for over $6 million.
Unlike a city’s main square that, from time to time, brings together representatives from all over the city for major festivals, concerts, and special events, a neighborhood square has certain unique social functions: it is frequented every day of the year by those who live in the neighborhood; it helps to strengthen social networks; and it builds community. Designing a neighborhood square to fulfill these social functions is not so simple. One of the biggest challenges is to get the proportions of the square right.
Unique social functions of a neighborhood square
For those of us concerned with how the built environment influences community, well-being, and public health, public places – streets and plazas – are of immense importance . A hospitable European-style neighborhood square is the holy grail. 
While many Western U.S. cities founded by the Spanish still have a viable plaza at their heart, many of these are used only sporadically by the local population for special events, or they serve primarily the tourist population.
In Portland, our main Pioneer Courthouse square comes alive weekly with programmed concerts, festivals, and markets but does not support residents’ everyday social life. I live within a few blocks but I would not expect to see anyone I know there. Portland’s neighborhoods are rich in parks, but lack squares. Even the beloved Jamison Square in the Pearl District, fondly called by many locals a “squark” (square/park) functions primarily as a bosky water playground for kids from all over the city, rather than as a neighborhood square.
With a mix of local stores and cafes surmounted by apartments that provide “eyes on the square”, shade trees and places to sit, some locally significant artwork and water features for kids to play, a traffic-free European-style neighborhood square can be the heart of a community, the place people come to shop, meet, pass through, where elders and parents keep an eye on children playing. It is the place where everyone belongs, where you meet friends, and develop a sense of community.
Daily face-to-face interaction with a variety of other people – friends, neighbors, and familiars – is crucial to individual well-being . Physical health is dependent on mental health. If you have a strong social network, researchers find that you also have a strong “social immune system:” you are less likely to become sick, if you are sick it is less serious, and you live to a riper old age. 
Community, well-being, and public health are strong arguments for creating neighborhood squares.
Designing a neighborhood square is not so simple
Portland, attracts many new residents because of its reputation as a livable, walkable, compact, human scale city, with a strong community spirit. These characteristics are epitomized in Portland’s North West District, where residents are deeply involved in planning and livability issues. This neighborhood also has the city’s highest density in a mix of historic family homes and four to five story apartments. Twelve years ago, the transportation company Conway, which owned a 25-acre site on the northern edge of the NW District, decided to sell most of the acreage for a new urban neighborhood.
NW residents immediately became involved, donating thousands of hours to work in meetings with the owners and the City to create a Master Plan  that would ensure walkability, human scale, mixed use, and that would connect well to the existing historic district. Conway was delighted by the challenge of creating a truly urban complete “10-minute neighborhood” where you could live within a 10-minute walk to shops, schools, services, parks, work, and public transit. Conway believed these characteristics would attract the brightest minds to live within close walking distance of their employment at Caltrans.
All parties emphasized that the public realm must be given the highest priority. For neighborhood residents, the most important element in the Master Plan was a European-style neighborhood square.
Through innumerable meetings over several years, the neighborhood partnered with Conway (the land owner) and the City to develop the Conway Master Plan to guide future development. Largely thanks to this intense community involvement, the Plan’s fundamental standards were clearly articulated. The square must be “for everyday use, a variety of neighborhood activities, a farmer’s market and programmed events in all seasons… such as fairs, art shows, and small musical performances, etc.“ 
The space was envisioned in the Master Plan as approximately 135 x 135 feet (i.e. 18,225 square feet). The Master Plan standards require “a square that has no dimension less than 100 feet and shall be at least 16,000 square feet in size.” Adjacent maximum building heights are set at 45 feet on the west, 75 feet on the north and east. The site’s parcel is the regular Portland 200 feet by 200 feet city block. The overall floor area ratio (FAR) for the 25 acres was set at 3:1, with the assumption that FAR would be transferred away from the square to blocks further north. There is no minimum FAR around the square in order to encourage a human scale.
Many elements must come together to achieve a successful square – mix of uses, human scale, a suitable architectural frame, entrances on all sides, seating, shade, etc.  It was decided early on that traffic poses a danger for playing children; traffic noise and air quality detract from a square’s hospitality for all; and in order to enliven the square, it needs to be bounded by diverse stores, cafes, restaurants, and civic facilities.
In the early phases of the square’s development it was clearly understood that a neighborhood square must be accessible from every direction, ideally in a variation of Sitte’s “turbine arms,”  so that as you enter from one side, you are not immediately pulled out the other side. Social networks are strengthened when residents from all surrounding blocks are able to cut across the square because this enhances the possibility of serendipitously bumping into a friend or familiar. A square does not function well in bringing the community together if it is a “dead end” that you can only enter from one or two sides.
In an early design phase, YBA Architects developed an interesting ground floor plan, with entries on all four corners, but this was an unsatisfactory solution for a number of reasons: the square was too small, buildings on the east projected 30 feet into the pedestrian way, and the buildings on all four sides cantilevered over the square so that the dimensions of the square above the ground floor was only 119 x 92 feet (11,000 square feet).
Portland experiences many months of grey skies, making sunlight a highly valued amenity, especially in spring and fall. The east-west dimension of the square and height of buildings on the east and west are therefore of particular importance in optimizing solar exposure, especially for children’s play and for an evening drink or supper on the square.
As time went on, it became clear that architects experienced in designing buildings-as-objects do not have expertise in designing squares, the places between buildings. As Edmund Bacon observed in his seminal book, Design of Cities, many designers are “space blind.” 
Even the meaning of the word “square” is poorly understood, despite five centuries of literature on squares, from Leon Battista Alberti, to Camillo Sitte, to Jan Gehl, in which squares are defined as “gathering places under the open sky” . A courtyard is not a square, neither is an area beneath a building. An arcade or colonnade is an arcade or colonnade, not a square.
Getting the proportions right
Judging from Portland’s experience, the most difficult challenge may be in achieving appropriate proportions – the relationship between the width of a square, and the height of surrounding buildings. A square that is too narrow, with buildings that are too high will feel claustrophobic, and will not attract the everyday social life needed to make the square “self-programming”.
According to Alberti’s treatise On the Art of Building, “A proper height for buildings about a square is one third of the breadth of the open area, or one sixth at the least.”  This results in a calm square with gracious proportions. The buildings do not press in on you, but step back as if to give you space. The sky is a vaulted ceiling above the square, ensuring light and sun access. Indeed, Kidder Smith,  Edmund Bacon, Michael Webb and many others have observed that beloved piazzas and squares feel like a well-proportioned room, theater, or a grand hall open to the sky.
Jan Gehl emphasizes that building heights framing public places should be human scale, relating to how we experience our environment. His angle of vision theory explained in Cities for People is rooted in human physiology. Our angle of vision is 50-55 degrees above the horizontal.
This angle creates a golden rule for estimating optimal building heights around a square to avoid feeling oppressed and overwhelmed . Humans feel more comfortable when they can glimpse sky above the buildings within their angle of vision. A hospitable square must have a substantial area near the center of the square where a group of people may gather, face and talk with one another, and where each person sees a little sky above the building they are facing. In a 100 x 100 feet square a “sky-view island” should be approximately 30 x 30 feet; in a 100 x 200 feet square, the “sky-view island” would be 30 x 60 feet.
If buildings along the side of a square are of different heights, some buildings may be higher than this. We have a wide horizontal field of vision (210 degrees). We are not so discomfited by one tall building providing we can still see sky on either side of it without turning our head.
There are numerous examples of well-functioning neighborhood squares that illustrate these principles. Venice has six major neighborhood squares (campi) and innumerable smaller squares (campielli) that, until the tourist industry ballooned in the 1990s, provided the ideal setting for community social life, for children and elders, for shopping, vegetable and fish markets, and for community festivals. Some still do.
The Gracia neighborhood in Barcelona boasts ten neighborhood squares (plaças). Each has its own character, and is slightly different in size, though all dimensions are from a minimum width of 80 feet to a maximum length of 220 feet. Some are lively, favorite spots where people congregate throughout the year. Others are very quiet, playing a modest role in supporting community social life. While many factors have influenced each square’s success, one important factor is their proportions.
Plaça del Raspali feels hemmed in by its surrounding buildings, even though five streets lead into it. The square is only 80 x 90 feet, but the buildings on two sides are four to six stories high (50 – 60 feet). The buildings contain some essential resources – a bakery, barbershop, pharmacy, and a bar/restaurant, and the square has hosted occasional neighborhood festivals and pop concerts, but on a daily basis, it is very quiet. The population around the square is largely Romani, which suggests this may be a more affordable neighborhood than those around the larger, more hospitable neighborhood squares.
Plaça del Diamant is a little larger at 19,200 square feet (120 x 160 feet) than the square proposed for Portland, and it has six streets leading into it. Each side consists of four buildings, from two to six stories. Only two small buildings are six stories so from the large area in the center of the square (approx. 50 x 120 feet) there is always a view of the sky within one’s field of vision.
Plaça de John Lennon measures almost exactly the minimum required size of Portland’s neighborhood square – 16,100 square feet (115 x 140 feet). Four streets lead into it at the corners. Despite its small size it does not feel claustrophobic. On one side, the buildings are two and three stories high. On the other three sides the buildings are four stories. One side has two additional floors tucked into a pitched roof, with stepped-back terraces that achieve a six-story building without impeding the angle of vision. The square has a substantial area (40 x 80 feet) within which you can see the sky in all directions.
There are continuous stores and businesses around the square that seem to be flourishing (café, computer stores, print shop, computer repair store, ice cream, and patisserie, etc.). With a secondary school at one corner, the square becomes jam-packed when school lets out as kids zoom around on scooters and roller blades, play football and tag around adults’ legs, chatter in building niches, and adults sit at the café.
To create a hospitable neighborhood square is a real challenge for any American city. But Portlanders have led the way in city livability before. In the 1970s, citizens demanded that a proposed 12-story parking garage at the heart of the city should instead be a public square. After a design competition, the beautiful arena-like Pioneer Courthouse Square was built, now proudly called “Portland’s Living Room.” 
I would have thought that if any American city can create a neighborhood square, Portland would be the first to do it. But perhaps the process needs the input of form-based urban designers. Unless they are uniquely visionary, and dedicated to public well-being, building developers whose primary concern is to maximize returns may not be the best people for the job. Holly Whyte ran across this problem back in the 1970s in New York when he argued for creating pocket parks in exchange for increased heights. He was sorely disappointed by the poor quality of public plazas that resulted.
Portland is proud of its heritage of robust civic engagement in planning decisions. At the opening session of the 2013 International Making Cities Livable Conference in Portland, then-Mayor Charlie Hales said: “People who live [here] have a right and expectation to be involved with the future of their own community; it’s not just what planners or developers want.” 
And Elaine Cogan, who was instrumental in setting up Portland’s public involvement system, always emphasized, “Genuine engagement with the public requires commitment, perseverance, time and money.” 
In creating the public realm – the part of the city that belongs to the people – it is the responsibility of elected representatives, their staff and commissioners to represent the public interest, and prevent a developer from cramming through a public space that violates the Master Plan and fails to support its intended social functions.
In the final analysis, if the city does not represent the people’s well-being, and protect the intent, Standards and Guidelines specified in a Master Plan, then no amount of community engagement will succeed in ensuring a neighborhood square that supports social life and community.
In Portland, the community, planning staff, city representatives, architect and developer of the square block are still struggling to achieve what is required in the Master Plan, “a hospitable neighborhood square… a significant, iconic urban place.” 
Alberti, Leon Battista – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Battista_Alberti
Sitte, Camillo. (Translated by Charles T. Stewart) 1945. The Art of Building Cities. New York, Reinhold Pub. Corp.
 Crowhurst Lennard, Suzanne. (in press) Public Places, Community, and the Physical and Mental Health of Children and Elders, in Stafford, Philip (Editor) The Global Age-friendly Community Movement. Berghahn
 Crowhurst Lennard, Suzanne, and Lennard, Henry L. (2008) Genius of the European Square. Gondolier Press.
The International Making Cities Livable Council is an interdisciplinary, international network of individuals and cities dedicated to making our cities and communities more livable. IMCL Council members are active in organizing and participating in the International Making Cities Livable Conferences held twice a year, once in North America and once in Europe; in publishing books, consulting, teaching, and improving the livability of their own cities. The principles of the IMCL Conferences, initiated in 1985, have become part of a national US agenda, and are being applied by many cities in Europe and other parts of the world. The IMCL Conferences bring together city officials, practitioners and scholars in architecture, urban design, planning and urban affairs, health and social sciences and the arts, from around the world to share experience and ideas. Together with other urban conferences, the IMCL Conferences share a concern with issues ranging from balanced transportation planning to community participation, from historic preservation to new ecological housing and development plans. However, the IMCL Conferences are unique in their holistic vision of the city, their emphasis on the interrelationship between the built urban environment and citizens’ well-being, and their explicit concern with values in urban decision making that enrich the quality of everyday life of the city’s inhabitants, especially children. At the IMCL Conferences special attention is paid to the indispensable role of public spaces for connecting the city’s inhabitants and developing community. Guiding these Conferences is the conviction that we must make our cities not only ecologically sound, but also socially sustainable. Visit http://livablecities.org
Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D.(Arch.), is Founder (1985) and Director of the International Making Cities Livable Conferences, and Consultant to cities in the U.S. and Europe. Dr. Crowhurst Lennard has held academic posts at the University of California, Berkeley, and Brookes University, Oxford, England. She has been Visiting Professor at Harvard University, and City University New York, and Guest Lecturer in Architecture and Planning Departments in the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, Austria and Italy. She has received awards from the NEA, NYSCA, RIBA, and the Graham Foundation.