Among modern urbanists, the universal consensus that the postwar urban form of towers in parks is bad gives way to fractious disagreements about which urban form to replace them with. The main battle lines are drawn between libertarians and such liberal sympathizers as Matt Yglesias who argue for removing zoning laws and building tall buildings on the model of Manhattan, and social liberals in the tradition of Christopher Alexander who argue for height limits and traditional pre-19th century urbanism. On the blogosphere, the most consistent advocate of the former is Market Urbanism, and the most consistent advocate of the latter is Old Urbanist.
Wherever social scientists examine these issues, they find a taste that architects on the whole do not find it interesting to satisfy, a taste for the low-rise, the small scale, the unit that gives some privacy, some access to the ground, a small piece of land wholly under one’s control. I am not, of course, describing a universal taste, But for people raising children – and indeed many others – it is a near universal taste, if people have a choice. Nor is there any reason to think that is is necessary or desirable that people be educated against that taste and develop a taste for a larger or gargantuan scale…
A good rule of thumb is that one should dismiss every claim of a “near universal taste” that is not universal in the literal sense – and this one is not. I’m basing my impression on Charlie’s post and it could be that Glazer provides more justification for the universality of the desire for single-family owner-occupied housing, but outside the US, I just don’t see it. It’s not present in Tel Aviv, Paris, or any other city where the rich usually live in multi-story buildings, on their own volition. In Paris one at least has the consolation that people live in mid-rise buildings; Tel Aviv, where those mid-rise buildings are for the upper middle class while the rich live in modernist skyscrapers, has no such excuse. Even Manhattan is undergoing an upper-class baby boom, so even in the US families with children are no longer shunning the city.
In general, it’s easy to dismiss everything one does not like as going against a universal taste. All one needs is to point to universal acceptance in places where government regulations mandate one’s preference (for example, suburbia in most of the US) and, if one wants to be more self-conscious, then harangue about government regulations elsewhere mandating the opposite. In reality, the rich live where other rich people live, in gated communities, which can have any urban form; the middle class lives where the rest of the middle class lives; the poor live where housing is cheap. Even modernist projects can do: for middle-class examples, consider New York’s Co-op City and Stuyvesant Town.
In contrast, the primary argument used by height limit opponents is utilitarian: density requires height. This is obvious in central business districts, where the economics of agglomeration favor very large buildings, and vertical CBDs such as Midtown and Lower Manhattan and the Chicago Loop can attain very high densities. The footprint of the Empire State Building has a floor area ratio of 33, that of the
Sears Willis Tower 37. It’s impossible to get anywhere this density without multiple tens of floors, even with buildings that rise vertically from the lot limit without tapering.
Unfortunately, this point is easy to miss, since the headline figure of density is residents per unit of area, and residential skyscrapers are rare. Skyscraper-ridden Manhattan and height-limited Paris have about the same residential density, but Manhattan’s skyscrapers are predominantly commercial. Aside from project towers, Manhattan’s residential urban form is mid-rise, with most buildings not exceeding 6-12 floors; this is similar to Paris.
Indeed, the last time I visited Paris I instantly felt at home, as if in a French-speaking Manhattan. The architectural styles are similar. The building height in Paris is the same as what I’m used to from living in Upper Manhattan. The street widths are on average similar, though Manhattan’s street widths are more uniform whereas Paris has many 10-meter-wide streets as well as many 40-meter-wide boulevards. Both places are the densest major clusters one can find in the developed world outside Hong Kong; this is about the limit one can get with mid-rise buildings flanking moderately wide streets.
To get higher density, one must build higher. Some parts of Manhattan do: the Upper East Side and Upper West Side have a fair number of buildings in the 20-30 story range, and although as Charlie computes only 1% of New York City’s residents live above the 19th floor, the proportion is much higher on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side, and becomes even higher if one relaxes the limit from 20 floors to 12, already well beyond the limit traditional urbanists and high-rise opponents accept (Christopher Alexander proposes 5 as the limit). Those are precisely the neighborhoods with the highest density in Manhattan. The census tracts where the residents are upper middle-class rather than rich – generally those in the north or east of the Upper East Side – have residential densities of about 50,000-75,000 per square kilometer. In contrast, the average in Manhattan and Paris is about 25,000, and the densest quarter of Paris has about 40,000.
I’m unconvinced they’re clearly inferior to densely packed mid-rise buildings; zoning boards and NIMBYs can be just as shrill toward narrow streets, without which small buildings limit density to suburban levels, as they are toward high-rises. And when demand is so great that even 40,000 people per km^2 at modern urban apartment sizes is not enough – a demand that’s familiar for office towers, but relatively new for residences – higher buildings become a necessity. They do not have to have 50 floors as Ed Glaeser proposes, but any limit lower than 20 is an unreasonable constraint in this case.
I’m not going to make an aesthetic or environmental argument here. People of means have had no trouble living with very narrow streets in Tokyo, or with very wide avenues and high-rises. But, please, do not pretend you can limit height without limiting density. There’s a point beyond which demand will exceed your height limit.