It's time to dump the tired argument that density and height are green and sustainable.

432 Park
Promo image 432 Park Avenue

Everybody says it. from David Owen the Green Metropolis to Edward Glaeser in the Triumph of the City to Matt Yglesias in The Rent is too damn high to Ryan Avent in The Gated City to Alex Steffen in Carbon Zero, all the experts say that if we want a greener, healthier city then we have to roll back the regulations, get rid of the NIMBYs and let a thousand towers bloom. And many cities, from London to New York to Toronto are listening.

But what are we getting when we throw away height limits and barriers to development, stop worrying about shadows and views, and let the developers loose? Also importantly WHO are we getting?

London

The Shard/Promo image

In London, you get the Shard and some other very expensive buildings, sometimes occupied by global billionaires who are parking their money. Mostly they live somewhere else. Andrew Marr writes in the Spectator, in and article titled London is being hollowed out by global investors

I was talking to a developer who had been in Shanghai selling north London apartments. He was worried about empty buildings and asked some purchasers what they intended to do with their new multi-million-pound apartment. They wanted their son to have his education in London. He would come and live in the flat and then they would sell it to pay the fees. Interesting, replied my man. And how old is your son? Nearly six months, they replied.

New York

432 Park Avenue /Promo image

In New York, you get the likes of 432 Park Avenue, a really magnificent slender tower designed by Rafael Viñoly, recently in TreeHugger for his London Fryscraper.

432 Park Avenue /Promo image

The floor plate is a perfect 93 foot square, often with a single family occupying a full floor. Let's stop this fantasy that building density and height are by their nature green; This stuff is some of the least dense housing that has ever been built in the city, inefficient tiny floor plates with single family floor plans costing tens of millions of dollars.

432 Park Avenue /Promo image

The renderings are stunning.

© 432 Park Avenue

The bathrooms, bigger than many New York apartments, are particularly beautiful. This is what every city needs, absolutely stunning apartments, beautifully furnished, great views.

Toronto

© Mirvish + Gehry

Chris Hume: Rules, of course, were meant to be broken.

In Toronto, we are getting a Frank Gehry hat trick, three 85 story towers that are taking the place of four historic buildings. But hey, as Christopher Hume says in the Star, "There are two types of heritage, let’s not forget: one we inherit; the other we bequeath."

But what is being bequeathed here, Chris? Three jazzy overpriced condo towers owned by global investors? The city doesn't need that. The base, full of cultural facilities and art galleries, paid for by the condo sales? How about taking the developer money and putting into areas that need amenity and spreading the social benefit around. And a Frank Gehry monument to make Toronto world class? Please.

New York by Gehry/Promo image

And what do you get when you have a Frank Gehry condo building? You can be sure of one thing, it's not going to be cheap. In New York by Gehry on Spruce Street in New York,

© New York by Gehry

A studio apartment with fewer amenities than the ones in the Bloomberg prefab being built in midtown goes for $ 3100 a month. No mention if that includes cable. The fact is, these buildings are expensive to build, really expensive to maintain and not very practical. As Matt Yglesias might say, the rent is too damn high.

© The Related Companies/ Hudson Yards

Michael Sorkin: It's time for New York and other cities to connect urban planning to social equity.

Buildings are not isolated Frank Gehry sculptures, they exist to house people and give them places to work. They are part of a culture and a society, not monuments. They should serve a societal need, not just park money for the very rich. Michael Sorkin, in an article in Architectural Record, " writes:

While hospitality to strivers is a hallmark of New York's greatness, we've been too long governed by a theory that has trickle-down as its normative center. Indeed, if all wealth descends from the top, the logic of development must have as its predicate making the rich as rich as can be—and much of the planning process in recent years has sought to do precisely that. From corporatist development priorities to sweepingly reconfigured zoning, a mind-set that filters urban construction through the ideals of the real-estate industry has ruled.

Michael Kimmelman: Exceptional height should be earned, not just bought.

Michael Kimmelman, the Times' architectural critic, thinks the City should demand more from developers and should put in better controls, in his article, Seeing a Need for Oversight of New York’s Lordly Towers.

The city should put a limit on air rights that can be merged without public review. Exceptional height should be earned, not just bought. Let community groups and city agencies weigh in. Developers will raise hell, but the move would not stop sky-high buildings from going up. Buildings striving for such height would just need to make a case for themselves aesthetically and otherwise. Developers might also give something back for the profits reaped as they leverage public assets like parks. They could pony up for affordable housing and improved transit.

One57 in moonlight/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Felix Salmon: Better we have a living city... than a stifled one governed by nostalgists and Nimbys.

Felix Salmon disagrees with Kimmelman in The new era of the New York skyscraper. But first he writes about the people who buy these units.

...the owners buying into these new towers are pretty unsympathetic. For all their riches, they tend to pay very little in the way of taxes, they don’t interact much with the rest of the city (if they did, they’d never want to live on 57th Street), and they generally leave their apartments empty for nearly all of the year.

Yet he concludes that New York needs less regulation and more skyscrapers.

I do think that New York City is a city of skyscrapers; that it’s self-defeating for any city of skyscrapers to stop building such things; and that if you’re going to be building new skyscrapers, you’re never going to bat 1000. Better we have a living city with a couple of less-than-perfect buildings, than a stifled one governed by nostalgists and Nimbys.

Nostalgists and NIMBYs, rise up.

It's time for a little stifling, Felix. It's time that the NIMBYs demanded an open and transparent approval system where the rules mattered, where height limits weren't where you started but where you stopped. It's time that the nostalgists for an era when working people could afford a roof over their head demanded the same for the current generation. Its time that we thought not only about what we are building but for who.

Tags: Architecture | Green Building | New York City | Urban Life | Urban Planning