High-Rises and New Urbanists: How to Attack Both

MLewyn's picture

I realize that high-rises aren't perfect.  They may consume more energy than smaller buildings, and under the wrong circumstances, high-rises can coexist with bad urbanism (for example, a tall building in the middle of a suburban office park, or surrounded by ten-lane roads).  Having said that, I do think some criticisms of tall buildings go overboard.

Ed McMahon of ULI wrote an op-ed attacking high-rises, and I responded with a critique on my website.  I'm not going to recite everything I said on my blog, but I did want to point out that the arguments McMahon uses are perhaps a bit toxic for New Urbanists. Why?  Because his arguments are similar to those commonly raised against compact development.

For example, McMahon writes that high-rises turn cities into "tower cities""- which sounds to me like "if we allow any high-rises they will take over the neighborhood." This argument seems to me pretty similar to the "War on Suburbia" arguments against smart growth and new urbanism- that is, it implies that any change from the status quo will somehow lead to the destruction of single-family homes and suburban subdivisions. 

McMahon also argues that high-rises threaten "neighborhood integrity" (i.e. change the status quo).  But since most of what has been built in America since 1950 is sprawl, compact development often changes the status quo as well.  Thus, the "neighborhood integrity" argument is really an argument against any increased density anywhere.

Similarly, McMahon draws a line between "high-rise cities" like New York and Chicago and "mid-rise cities"- implying that high-rises are fine for the largest cities but not for anywhere else.  It could just as easily be argued that any form of walkable development is fine for older cities but not for the Sun Belt or for suburbia.

If we are going to build more compact, walkable neighborhoods we are going to have to change neighborhood character in lots of places.  So if new urbanists rely on such arguments, they are giving their enemies lots of ammunition.


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