Livable Streets or Tall Buildings? Cities Can Have Both

Chicago's 17-story Monadnock building provides pedestrians with an interesting architectural experience and retail amenities at their eye level, despite being almost 200 feet tall. Photo: ##
Chicago’s 17-story Monadnock building provides pedestrians with an interesting architectural experience and retail amenities at their eye level, despite being almost 200 feet tall. Photo: Wikipedia

Kaid Benfield’s new blog post on density is getting a lot of buzz over at NRDC’s Switchboard blog. Benfield, a planner/lawyer/professor/writer who co-founded both LEED’s Neighborhood Development rating system and the Smart Growth America coalition, has some serious street cred when it comes to these matters. And on this one, he’s with Danish architect Jan Gehl, who says wonderful places are built at human-scale density — three to six stories.

Benfield’s low- to mid-rise ideal is a great fit for smaller cities and towns trying to become more walkable and less car-dependent. And in most of America, building walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods out of three story buildings would be vastly more dense than the typical low-slung, single-use development pattern that predominates today. But it won’t work everywhere.

With demographers expecting the U.S. population to grow by 100 million people over the next 35 years, we’re going to need to build smarter and more vertical. In some cities, housing is already maxed out and unreasonably expensive. In those places, building up is often the only way to go. Can taller buildings engage people on foot and work at street level? It can be done. Just ask a million and a half humans living in Manhattan, or the 600,000 residents of Vancouver, or the residents of other cities where street life and skyscrapers coexist.

Benfield allows that taller buildings can be designed well for pedestrians, but his enthusiasm is for density-without-height, not how to integrate height into the pedestrian environment. He cites a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab that concluded neighborhoods with smaller and older buildings are more successful urban places than those with larger, newer buildings. They tend to have greater densities of both population and businesses and have higher Walk Scores and Transit Scores. And the street life in those older districts tends to continue later into the night. (Again, Manhattan might want to speak up here.)

I get it. I tend to like living in a neighborhood with the “eyes on the street” security and community spirit that comes from front porches and stoops. But there are probably a lot of factors at play in that study by the Trust aside from building size.

Preferences differ and not all neighborhoods are the same. “Eyes on the street” can come from simply having a sidewalk full of people — or from the lower stories of a tall building. Architects and designers who care about the pedestrian environment have figured out how to create streets and public spaces that attract people amid towering skyscrapers. Even the shadowy caverns of Lower Manhattan, built before zoning codes mandated building setbacks, appeal to some people — the area has been undergoing a residential boom for years.

You can have wonderful public spaces amid tall buildings. If you don't, blame the planners, not the buildings. Photo: ##
You can have wonderful public spaces in areas with plenty of tall buildings. Photo of Bryant Park: Archinect

In his post, Benfield features this image of new construction in Arlington, Virginia, touted as one of the country’s most smart growth-oriented suburbs:

Central Place, Arlington, Virginia. Photo: Clark Construction, via ##
Central Place, a new development in Arlington, Virginia being touted as the tallest mixed-use development in the Washington area. Image: Clark Construction, via Switchboard

Benfield laments that this 31-story building — “built in the name of smart growth” — is “far less human-scaled and, to my eye, far less appealing” than the low-slung Parisian ideal. He notes that smart growth advocacy groups are more likely to feature red-brick historic neighborhoods with a patchwork of storefronts and a few apartments on top than steel-and-glass urbanism like this. “These organizations’ communications people know better than to trot out exactly what many people fear being built in their neighborhoods,” Benfield said.

But look at what this building does right. It puts the tower on top of a broader platform that’s six stories tall. The ground floor will be filled with 30,000 square feet of walkable retail. It’s adjacent to a metro station, with a new entrance. Is it perfect? No, but the flaws are embedded in the pedestrian environment — the wide street crossings and odd changes in grade — not the height of the buildings.

True, it’s not red brick. And Benfield wouldn’t be alone if he found this development — and Arlington in general — a little “soulless.” But that’s not a problem of density. I could show you any number of soulless cookie-cutter subdivisions.

While Parisian-style (and may I add, Washington-style) density can be lovely, sometimes you have to make something lovely out of taller buildings. As more people look to live in cities, housing prices will continue to soar, creating a poverty belt of unappealing suburbs outside the desirable, connected city — unless we aggressively build more housing. The challenge is to add more urban living space while creating good streets — and without losing what we love about historic neighborhoods. It can be done, but shying away from tall buildings isn’t the answer.

30 thoughts on Livable Streets or Tall Buildings? Cities Can Have Both

  1. Well said! Seattle is currently wrestling with this concept, even with low-rise apartment buildings popping up in the single family neighborhoods that make up two-thirds of the city’s land.

  2. Arlington is not really a suburb(even though technically it is). It is closer to the central business district(national mall) than many part of the inner city.

  3. Excellent article. I’d love to see more from Streetsblog that covers and reviews density/height/place-making projects.

  4. Benfield isn’t a planner – he’s an attorney. I don’t see any evidence that he worked as a planning practitioner at any point in his career.

    That said, I think he’s right. I would not employ high rise residential development in Manhattan as a model of appropriately scaled, livability density. These types of developments have a tendency to overwhelm their own infrastructure – from sidewalks, to transit, to the viewshed, and more. Manhattan may have 1.5 million people in it at any one time, but it’s also a tremendously transient place that is really sui generis among major cities in the US.

    I recommend reading “A Pattern Language”, as it really covers the topic of planning, design, and how they can interface with the public realm in a way that is compatible with human psychology in great depth.

  5. I believe it depends on your end goal. If it’s limiting your environmental footprint, then setting firm boundaries (or having them set for you like Manhattan’s waterfront) and building up as needed is ideal. If your goal is quality of life, I think on most indicators the then lower-rise buildings like in DC, Paris and even L.A. provide opportunities that Manhattan density doesn’t.

    However, Jan Gehl was on to something when he focused on ‘life between buildings.’ To achieve livable streets, its the design and programming of what lies between building lines that is truly important, regardless of how tall the buildings themselves are.

  6. I don’t see anything meaningfully wrong with height, but things like that Central Place monstrosity pretty much nail every no-no of urban architecture. It’s fugly, mall-like, has no intimacy, dominates the streetscape, and (maybe not this one, but this often applies) makes a lot of space for parking and cars.

    DC is pretty low-scale, but its City Beautiful (before there was City Beautiful?) obsession with lawns and spacious streets ended up making it the perfect doormat for the car culture that burgeoned in Virginia and Mayland suburbs. Therefore, its walkability is rather horrendous for a city its age.

  7. Those sidewalks in the picture do look sterile and boring. Reminds me of 70’s planning with a little 80’s architectural flare.

  8. FYI outside of Manhattan below 110th Street, New York is overwhelming a 2-3 (narrow side street) and 6-7 (wide street) story city, because that’s the way you maxed out the pre-1961 zoning.

    The 1961 zoning encouraged “towers in the park.”

    All the rezonings since have sought to undo it, and get back to the 2-3 and 6-7 story buildings.

  9. Height is almost irrelevant. The most important factor is how the building relates to the street. Does it have high transparency at ground level? Does it have frequent entrances and small shops? Are the entrances at the sidewalk level (ideal) or a few feet above (poor design)? When you’re walking next to a building, you rarely notice anything over a few stories anyways.

  10. Using Arlington, VA as an example of urbanism that can be a blue print for everywhere else cracks me up. Only if you’re in a high paid professional will you be living there.

    In Chicago, yes there are lots of three/four story buildings along business streets that could be converted to housing on the upper floors. In fact many of these buildings have apartments over the first floor busineses. But, certainly these older buildings would need significant rehab to attract the younger crowds that expect their marble counter tops, walk in closets, air conditioning and elevators. By the time you get done rehabing a 10 unit building, you may have six attractive apartments. But many of the older buildings are built on zero lot line, from sidewalk to alley. Yeah, give them a deck on the roof then.

    But what to do with the former tenants of the smallish apartments that currently live in these buildings? That’s never included in any of these discussions.

  11. Instead we have these tasty visions of Paris. As for unappealing suburbs. Unless the city works to improve its school system, there will be a constant turn over in young parents heading for the burbs, once the discover that the can’t afford private schools, pay the mortgage and save for college if the can’t get their children into one of better selective enrollment schools in the city.

    Lastly, getting a large amount of suburban employers to return to the city is also an issue. A lot of prime office space in downtown Chicago went condo over the last few years. The central core will soon be out of prime office space. Where will these jobs locate? That again is never discussed. And while Manhatten has a history of families living in highrises, gaining acceptance for raising a family in either highrise or low rise may be a tougher sell beyond New York.

  12. Building height is also dictated by materials and their costs. Developers tend to prefer buildings that are less than 75 feet tall (wood-frame construction, 6 stories @ 12’/story) or greater than 180 feet tall (steel-frame construction, 15 stories @ 12’/story). Given these construction material constraints, any building between 75′ and 180′ tends to be a money-loser, as you’re paying for steel-frame construction, but not getting enough stories/units of space to recoup costs.

    Wood-frame construction buildings, at 2-6 stories tall, are much more feasible from a cost and community-acceptance standpoint in most American cities and suburbs outside of glass-and-steel CBDs.

  13. Here’s another consideration, you can build a 2 to 6 story building on a much smaller lot. However, to build a highrise you have to assemble quite a bit of property. Unless you have a parcel large enough, you will never get the height. A lot of buildings currently in Chicago along business streets are already 2 to 4 stories high. So depending upon the neighborhood, buying a 2 to 4 story building, tearing it down and then building up 6 stories does not make a lot of economic sense unless the building is in one of the hot areas. At most, many of these buildings/parcels are 50 to 75 feet wide and at a depth of 125 to 150 feet.

    So you either have to go the route of assembling quite a few parcels to get a large enough parcel to build a highrise or you keep things the way things are, or you buy the parcel, tear it down and get a few more units.

  14. Wood-frame construction brings its own issues, though – most allow a ton of noise to transmit between floors and walls (footfall, conversation, television noise, stereos, etc). Working families with young children do not want to be subjected to the noise of their neighbors 24/7. Who wants to work all day, pick up a kid from child care, and come home to dinner while being subjected to a neighbor’s stereo system coming through the wall? The required sound transmission factor in our local building codes are simply too lenient. I’m not even getting into the issue of window thickness requirments and street noise (car alarms)?

    This is absolutely a factor that drives urban families into single family homes in the burbs. Once these shoddy buildings go up, developers leave town and the community is stuck with them for generations.

  15. The conventional thinking is that taller buildings do more to limit environmental impact, while the Paris model provides a more attractive city with a better quality of life.

    But it is not necessarily true that high-rises are superior environmentally. Michael Mehaffy points out that:

    The research shows that negative effects of tall buildings include:
    —Increasingly high embodied energy of steel and concrete per floor area, with increasing height
    —Relatively inefficient floorplates due to additional egress requirements
    —Less efficient ratios of common walls and ceilings to exposed walls/ceilings
    (compared to a more low-rise, “boxier” multi-family form — as in, say,
    central Paris)
    —Significantly higher exterior exposure to wind and sun, with higher resulting heat gain/loss

    He also points out these effects on adjoining properties:
    —Ground wind effects
    —Shading issues (especially for other buildings)
    —Heat island effects — trapping air and heating it, placing increased demand on cooling equipment
    —“Canyon effects” — trapping pollutants, reducing air quality at the street

    We tend to think high-rises are environmentally superior because they reduce sprawl and reduce the need for transportation, but the Paris model does this almost as well. Mehaffy concludes that, if we also take into account their negative environmental impacts, more precise quantitative studies are needed to determine whether high-rises are environmentally superior to the Paris model.

    Mehaffy summarizes these issues at

    I would add that the Paris model is often more acceptable politically. If we identify smart growth with high rises, there is a danger of turning people against smart growth.

    If typical suburbanites hears that a Parisian neighborhood might be built on the land of a nearby shopping center, they are likely to welcome it.

    If they hear that buildings like those sterile glass towers in Arlington are going to be build on a nearby shopping center, they are likely to think that this is just what they moved to the suburbs to get away from. If this is smart growth, then they will go with electric cars.

    Those glass towers in Arlington look like they also use more energy because of high heat-gain and heat loss. Even with double-paned glass and modern coatings, there is more heat gain and loss through windows than through solid, insulated walls.

    Of course, you could also build high-rises with solid walls and smaller windows, but it is revealing that this article discusses those Arlington buildings without considering heat gain and loss. It shows that high-rise advocates consider only a subset of the environmental issues involved.

  16. The new downtown neighborhoods in Vancouver, B.C. are a good example of height (20-30 stories) with amenity. They require that residential towers include “ground=based” (ground floor entered) housing, they require setbacks at various heights, and they provide high quality public space on the street. If you plan and design a tall building as part of the urban fabric, rather than as a freestanding sculpture or beacon, it can work.

  17. I’ve heard about the “gap” between 75′ tall wood frame & steel/concrete high-rise, but I think it’s only applicable in California, where seismic detailing requirements make steel/conc construction significantly more expensive. In places where seismic loads are lower, you can get away w/ more precast concrete & plain bolted steel connections, so mid-rise buildings are perfectly feasible.

  18. Wood frame construction is cheaper, so in the name of affordability, we should be allowing a ton of low-rise wood construction. But limiting cities, especially large cities, to 6 stories is bad… just ask anyone living in Paris’s suburbs how it’s working out for them.

  19. There’s plenty of vacant and underutilized land (two-three story buildings and parking garages) in the loop at the moment and then to the fringes to the south and west there is a fair amount of vacant land and quite a bit of new office construction as well as conversion of older industrial buildings to office use.

  20. Six story buildings are seldom wood frame, at least not in Chicago. Generally they are brick composition with wood or metal trusses for floor support.

    In the 1960s and 70s, developers figured out a “work around” called the Four Plus One. At the time to build higher than 4 floors (which could have wood frames), the developers figured out they could slide an extra floor under the building (half in half out) and still build a wood framed apartment building instead of using steel. These well hated buildings are located along the northside, mostly in Uptown, Edgewater and Rogers Park. But some of them are actually being remodeled and going condo.

  21. Yes, they do. But these are very expensive buildings generally, ones that most everyday people cannot afford, so they live in Brooklyn instead.

  22. Yes there is. However, what will it take a business to relocate downtown without significant tax incentives.

    Further, its rather delusional to believe that people will relocate to cities if there are not jobs in the cities for them.
    Convince businesses (many in long term leases or owning their business property in the suburbs) to chuck it all and come to city may not be feasible.

    That’s what’s generally wrong with these plans.

  23. And that image is of Rosslyn, which not only is not a suburb in any meaningful sense, it’s basically a continuation of the CBD, separated only by the river. That still hasn’t stopped people from also referring to it as an “edge city” on occasion.

  24. Vancouver outright does it. You need eyes on the street from the first floor up, which that city mandates. Parking decks with apartments starting only on upper floors do not make street life happen.

  25. At what size of building / neighborhood density do people in the building and neighborhood get to know each other? Where you see the same somewhat limited number of people going in and out each day and the same people on the sidewalks and in the local cafe?

  26. I don’t have anything offhand to support or quantify this, but i’d say that the 3-6 story variety are more conductive to promoting that kind of community. I say this based on what i’ve found studying neighborhood densities in Venice (almost all 4 story buildings) and conversations with my brother who lives in a 7 story apartment building in East Village on Manhattan.

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