Spiking the football: McMahon says “America’s finest nabes achieve density without high rises”

From Citiwire writer Edward McMahon: “The problem is that many developers and urban planners have decided that density requires high rises: the taller, the better.  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.

“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.

“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.”

“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.  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.

“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.”  Full article here.

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