Just a blog about urban and transport issues. It started as an English translation of my French-language blog "kchoze urbaine", though now I'm primarily writing in English to reach a wider audience. Why the name? "Chose urbaine" in French means literally "urban thing". Why "kchoze" instead of "chose"? Because, as says Linkara, poor literacy is kewl. I'm a traffic engineer (the irony!) from Québec, I have no urbanist formation, this is only my musings and my opinions.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Is the building height debate mistaken? Should width, not height be the focus of the human scale?

There are few subjects that evoke so much passion in urbanist circles as building height. Some urbanists point out that height is necessary to add housing supply to built-out cities and to reduce pressure on housing prices, while others say that high buildings are basically an abomination against the human scale, with the most ardent defenders of this point of view outright saying that no building over 4 or 6 stories should be allowed.

One thing that plays against tall buildings is the absolute architectural and urbanist failure of the "towers in a park" concept, popularized by modernists in the mid-20th century, and picked up by many public housing projects on both sides of the Iron Curtain (but as most housing in communist countries were public housing, they were extremely common, hence the name "commieblock").
Towers in a park, in a former communist country
"Neighborhood" in Anjou, a borough of Montréal: a variant of the towers in a park, towers in a parking lot... proof that even a terrible idea can get much, much worse
These developments absolutely destroy the urban fabric and in their attempt to combine the advantages of green suburbs and dense cities, they instead combined the disadvantages of both. All the problems of density without the advantages. Walking from one place to the other is long, uninteresting and unpleasant. There is no connection to anything. The result to many of these developments was poverty, isolation, crime and other social ills of the kind.

Experiments like this turned many urbanists against the concept of towers altogether. Except...

The problem with the "towers in a park" concept wasn't with the "towers" part, but with the "in a park" part.

Take a classic "towers in a park" concept, replace these towers with 6-story buildings, or even 4-story buildings, and I think they would look just as bad. In fact, these places exist in many suburbs around the world, but here is one case around Stockholm that exemplifies this well:
Low-rise apartment buildings in a park, Stockholm suburb
Same area seen from the sky
Another example, this time in Montréal, I almost rented out this place before I decided for an apartment in a multiplex, a choice I do not regret
Thinking about this issue, I've had a thought: maybe height is not really what's important in terms of the human scale. Maybe the real important factor is building width, not height.

Width, the unspoken factor

There is a lot of discussion about height, but really little about building width. The two may be conflated somewhat because tall buildings tend to also be wide buildings, at least in North America. And building width may not seem important in the case of many European cities where buildings are attached, forming extremely wide "walls" of buildings on either side of the street, even though individual buildings tend to be generally narrow.

Paris, though the shared walls and uniform height gives at first an impression of an unbroken building more than 100 meters long, each "wall" is made up of 13- to 15-meter wide individual buildings
The people who argue against height tend to mention the human scale, that higher stories are isolated from the street by height, people on the street cannot visually identify people at balconies at more than 4 or 5 stories. That's true, but not everyone likes being near to the street when in their homes, some people do like having their own bubbles, it's quite easy to allow balconies on the first few floors, then setbacks for higher floors for people who want more isolation in their private home. It's better than pushing those people to suburbs to get the same privacy.

I personally think that what makes the human scale is the same thing that makes an area walkable. And what do you need for walking to be useful, comfortable and pleasant? You need density and mixed uses so that things are close to people. You need to have many things to see around you, variety makes every walk an unique experience. One way to have variety is to focus on details, not shape. The car-scale is often associated with very wide buildings and large empty spaces, but when you get close to the buildings, there is no attention at all to details, because no one is within close distance of the buildings except on their way in or out. You also need to give people the impression that they're going fast, and one way of doing that is to make sure that people's immediate environment frequently changes.

The importance of width here should be evident. The human scale is a point of view 1,5 to 1,9 meter-high and going along at 5 km/h (around 1,5 meter per second, 5 feet per second). So if a building is 10-meter wide, it takes only 6 seconds to cross it, at which point one's environment changes, you were in front of one building, now you're in front of another one. But if a building is 60-meter wide (200 feet), it takes you the most part of a minute to cross it (40 seconds). It takes quite a bit of time for the environment to change around you, you have the impression of being quite slow.

Blank walls: a specialty of wide buildings

It's important for buildings to have interesting features to keep people interested during a walk. And nothing is more interesting to people than other people. In that regards, I think doors and balconies are great, because they offer the promise of human activities. Theoretically, windows could do the same, but in reality, they're not that great as, especially in dense areas, residents will tend to make them opaque to preserve their privacy.

Shuttered windows in Tours, France
Now, the big problem with wide buildings is that they tend to have only one door, or maybe two, and to otherwise offer one long blank wall the rest of the side of the building. A blank wall is a wall without any feature or evidence of human activity, it is a plight on cities as it gives people no reason to be in the street and creates a boring, sometimes even dangerous, streetscape.

Blank wall in Stockholm
This is an example from Stockholm, an example taken not far from the first images of apartment buildings in park I've shown above. They essentially took the same building, but put it next to the street instead of lost in a park. Despite correcting this flagrant flaw of putting buildings far from the street, facing each other instead of the street, the result is not that much better, because the wall at eye-level to pedestrians is a featureless concrete wall with a door every 30 meters or so (100 feet).

Meanwhile, let's look at the opposite of this blank wall, triplexes in Verdun, a neighborhood of Montréal.
Multiplexes in Verdun: narrow buildings with lots of doors and balconies, and small setbacks
Anyway, the point is that wide buildings, even in the "urbanist-approved" low-rise apartment blocks, can result in blank walls that hurt the walkability of areas by making walking less pleasant and less comfortable.

Skinny towers: a special feature of Japanese cities

Up to now, I've shown a lot of examples of what not to do, about wide buildings that keep walkability down, but here is now the radical alternative: narrow but tall buildings.
Skinny towers in Ginza
Buildings in Gotanda, a neighborhood of Tokyo


Also Yokohama

A part of Yokohama seen from Landmark Tower, you have wide towers to the left, but narrow towers to the right
These buildings vary quite a bit, but they tend to be around 8 to 10-story tall. However, they are quite narrow, maybe around 10 meters on average (33 feet). They are quite common in older Japanese cities, as the Japanese tend to respect private property a lot. Meaning that not only will they tolerate their neighbor building higher buildings, but also that buying many neighboring lots to build a big, wide apartment block tends to be quite difficult. Lots tend to be quite narrow too because of earlier buildings. All of these images tend to be of wide streets because of the zoning rules that make building height dependent on street width. Also, note that unlike European cities, shared walls are extremely rare in Japan, even with narrow lots, buildings tend to leave some space between the walls, this is likely because shared walls require quite a bit of regulations to work in a context where each lot is owned by a different owner and there is constant construction going on with buildings being brought down and rebuilt.

Anyway, the result of such skinny towers is that they don't impact the walkability of the streets much, if at all. They're not disturbing like the wide buildings seen earlier as they offer a varied walking environment and their narrowness means that almost all of their front is dedicated to an entry point for the building, without any blank wall. It results in streets formed of a multitude of doors, one after the other, or even of small stores.

I've spoken of Sapporo recently, a much more recent city, and its modernity means that it tended to have wide streets, but also relatively wide lots. Meaning that their towers were wider on average.


Sapporo, some wide buildings, some less so
Sapporo from the air
Sapporo from the air
Still, there is a way to avoid the curse of blank walls with wide towers, as you can see in the next image:
Sapporo, the wide building to the left is actually split in two narrow stores on ground level
In this image, the wide building actually is split up at the ground level, with two narrow stores offering a better environment to pedestrians. This is unlikely to have been thought out by urban planners of the city, given how Japanese planning is less invasive than European planning, it may just be about the company that built the building doing what it thought was best to maximize rents.

Here is another example:
Still in Sapporo, this building has actually 4 or 5 stores plus a door for the apartments that are visible on this photo

In conclusion

I don't think building height matters much in terms of providing an interesting and human-centric built environment for people. The reality is that human beings tend to look down, not up, when they're walking, what's most important is populating streets at eye-level with human-friendly features: doors, balconies, verandas, store fronts, etc... and to make sure that there is a great variety of buildings on the way to provide for interesting and diverse environments. For that purpose, the important thing is to have narrow buildings, whether they have shared walls or not, it doesn't matter.

The entire debate on height is probably from a mistake, from misidentifying what makes the large, tall buildings so deleterious to street life. It's not that they are tall, but that they are wide. Wide low-rise buildings are no better.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I'd also add that in hilly areas, large buildings are more likely to have blank walls or at least few doors, because of the fact that the ground floor is typically at a single elevation, which means for much of the street frontage, it won't be at street level.


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