Height is not an urban strategy

Over the weekend, notable urban-issues political wonk Matt Yglesias wrote a passionate and well-meaning argument for greater density in the DC area that got it completely wrong. Yglesias claims that DC is suffering culturally and economically due to its height limitation, which inhibits the extreme density seen in Chicago or Manhattan. It also results in an uninteresting skyline to boot! Alas, he unconsciously bases his speculation in outdated thinking that assumes that commuter town is the optimal configuration of a city.

Washington in 2056
Magnacar dependency does not make a better Rosslyn.

Yglesias makes three arguments: taller buildings with will increase tax revenue, improve livability, and reduce what he calls “job-sprawl.” In each case, he is partially correct, but also misses broader issues of urban land use and planning. Primarily, he misunderstands the qualities and causes of density, mistaking the unique and exceptional conditions that created metropolises like New York, Chicago, Tokyo, and Paris for natural growth.

Density, he argues, is always and everywhere a height phenomenon. Yes, a block stretched thirty or forty stories into the sky would contain three times as much density as a current ten-story building on the same site. That’s true. But a greater gain in useable real estate can be made by the conversion of 1-3 story detached buildings with large yards into attached 4-story townhouses and buildings up to 7 stories on larger streets – perhaps up to twenty times the density currently present, without nearly as much aesthetic and environmental damage. For example, the large tower tracts of Crystal City are actually less dense than the rowhouses and urban fill of Columbia Heights, although the buildings in the older neighborhood are not as tall as the 60s development across the river.

In fact, an explicit goal of Bauhaus architects was to reduce density while maintaining efficiency by using large tower blocks that would let in sun and air and have transit right to the door. Their speculation, along with generally negative feelings towards density long before the advent of architectural modernism seemed merge the commercial value of a city with all of the benefits of good suburban living, the Jeffersonian ideal decorating workers’ barracks. But ultimately, these buildings and their ornamented cousins aren’t actually as efficient as anyone anticipated. The cost of building up is only valuable when the land is too expensive to build out. In fact, as Carol Willis points out in Form Follows Finance, building upwards results in diminishing returns due to increasingly complex and energy-dependent structural, mechanical, and circulation systems. Somewhere around the 70th floor, a building is actually losing value with each additional layer of cubicles.

But certain geographical and economic conditions have made vertical arrangements workable and profitable while maintaining density consistently. Manhattan is the primary example of this phenomenon. In cities without geographical boundaries, skyscrapers are complimented with vast expanses of sprawl necessary to populate the offices, as seen in Houston, Los Angeles, and even outer Chicago and New York (Queens, Westchester, Jersey City, etc.). Such urban distention is fundamentally costlier, more energy-intensive, and wasteful than tight neighborhoods spread out over a moderate area. Building buildings at walkable densities, clustered around transit is much more cost-effective and efficient. It also doesn’t block out the sun.

With that in mind, consider how DC has grown up since 1956. There is a central business district with lots and lots of transportation going into it. This district is almost exclusively commercial. Then there is a much larger area of primarily residential property going out from around it. Completely separate areas that lend themselves to completely separate uses. If there is one thing that planners have learned from a century’s mistakes, it is that single-use districts don’t work. Of course, there is room for homogeneity in any city, but the degree to which downtown DC is made into a single extrusion of corporations and non-profits is not really desirable, much like downtown Newark. Yglesias manages to walk right by this problem! He blithely notes:

It’s not like there are a ton of people taking leisurely strolls through Downtown DC anyway (it’s mostly people working, it’s an office district)


There are issues, of course, about building size restrictions in residential neighborhoods, but let’s just talk for now about the main office district.

Lastly, he writes,

The additional white collar jobs would mean that more professionals were spending their days in the city (through some combination of more suburbanites commuting to the District and fewer Districters reverse-commuting to the suburbs) which would mean higher levels of spending at downtown retail establishments.

Well, that’s true: it is an office district, and people do commute into the district. So if there were more “Districters” working there, it would just make it a more dense business district, more desolate at night than ever before. Precisely because of the urge to add commuter areas at the center of the city, it has become an uninteresting, functionalist monoculture. Adding residences might help, creating a feel more like Dupont Circle or NoMa, but it’s still not the best direction; the city doesn’t need to grow up, it needs to grow out. By that I don’t mean sprawling, disconnected zones of homogenous growth; I mean that DC needs to develop more, smaller “downtowns”, mixed in with residential growth – and maybe even a little light industry.

Rather than cluster more density around a limited number of roads and tunnels, DC should develop more areas of underdeveloped land and focus on moving density to satellite areas an corridors that either bring jobs closer to residential areas or at least add residential and commercial areas within DC’s boundaries. Ideally, commuting would be by foot, but realistically it would mean many more people commuting in multiple directions, changing the crush on one side of the platform to a comfortable population on both sides. Yglesias is completely off-base in wanting less contra-commuting and new lines, when there is a good amount of capacity in the current tunnels, just in the wrong direction.


So where would DC get this low-lying land? Well, most of DC is covered by a thin carpet of single-family homes, usually in large, uninterrupted tracts across the city. These areas, which have at suburban densities but urban infrastructure, are a misallocation of the land, well under optimal density. Only due to unreasonable zoning can this kind of urban form persist, reducing land values in some areas while artificially increasing them in others, usually where residents have less political influence. Plus, simplified mixed zoning would encourage areas of the city with jobs to be both humane and active at all times of the day. Busy streets with people on them mean less crime with fewer officers, so the police budget can be reduced per capita, and spent instead on street lighting (which also improves safety) – or simply not taxed at all.

Finances – revenues and expenditures – are Yglesias’s primary point develops from the extra tax revenues, blue-collar jobs, and commercial spending. From this, he reasons, more cops, less poverty, etc. will mean less crime and a prettier city. His assertion is technically true, but only because the question is posed the wrong way; as long as the growth occurs inside DC’s boundaries, the treasury is enlarged and so are the wallets of small business owners and developers. In fact, if people are walking to the local bar or restaurant, buying from a grocery store in the neighborhood, or getting furniture from a small store, they’re actually spending a lot more money in the city than if they just stayed for a few hours five days a week.

But all of my speculation begs the question: do people want to live and work in human-scale density? I believe the answer to be yes because of the factual increase in young people and families trying to avoid a commuting lifestyle. However, still more people would support good density if they knew at an intuitive level what it looked and felt like. Good density is mixed, not too tall, lined with trees, and scaled to land value. There are few culs-de-sac , either horizontal (roads) or vertical (elevators) and people commute in multiple directions. Hell, new urban centers mean more fun neighborhoods and fewer DUIs. Perhaps this is a rosy depiction, but it’s got to be better than simply “more commuting.”

However, land will always be cheaper on the outskirts of the metropolis and the social and economic benefits will always be greater in central parts of cities. Any solution to this problem will require values and economics to change considerably before any restructuring of urban form. So it is unfortunate to see a realist thinker like Yglesias get tripped up by errors of conventional wisdom. Ingrained ideas of what density looks like, how it functions, and why it happens have stalled progress toward livable communities. Planners need argue against the furtherance of undesirable and outmoded growth patterns, not only to change minds but also so that we do not get stuck with white elephant districts that cannot adapt to new conditions. Growth is great and maybe taller buildings will be needed. But for now, let’s not get into extreme density until other, less developed, areas have reached sustainable levels themselves.

13 thoughts on “Height is not an urban strategy

  1. Isn’t another advantage of 4 to 5 story density that, other than the foundation, it can be stick built? Once you get much more vertical than that concrete is needed throughout and increases costs.

  2. Shorter buildings can be built out of a whole host of materials that taller ones cannot. Using wood, rammed earth, stone, or brick might catch on in residential construction, but we’re stuck with stone and steel for most other buildings.

    These days, construction quality is at its lowest levels since the neolithic, so I’m wary of anything built with wood taller than two stories. There might also be some fire code issues with building in wood, but to be honest, I’ve never worked on a wood-framed structure in DC.

  3. Hey,

    I’ve been looking for commentary along this line about redevelopment in the District. While I disagree in some respects about the height restrictions (while I would never consider raising height limits in the “monumental core”, I think some deregulation is in order in some areas), I think we generally have similar ideas about the Anacostia waterfront, and I was wondering if you’d be interested in collaborating on the “Sumidacostia” project. In any case, I’d like permission to borrow and/or adapt your “circle line” map.

  4. Also, commenting more directly on the article: Chicago does have geographical constraints. I’d consider the general lack of an eastern half as such, honestly.

  5. The record of skyscrapers has been pretty poor: megastructures with parking lots next to them. Cities with skyscrapers and interesting ground levels tend to be older and have preexisting density. Honshu seems to have this going on too.

    I admire them for the aesthetic appeal and the testament to human achievement, but I don’t think they’re something to rush after. Most people seem to unthinkingly support tall buildings – or unthinkingly hate them. But, as Leon Krier likes to say, they’re “vertical culs-de-sac.” If someone asks you if you took a car to work, and you were in an elevator, then you have to say yes.

    Chicago does have geographical constraints. I’d consider the general lack of an eastern half as such, honestly.

    Such is my point. The accretion of investment was also closer to the shore, so it made financial sense to build up. Otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense.

  6. Neil, Paris doesn’t actually have many skyscrapers. It’s mostly built to the 6th floor, but still has Manhattan densities because of high lot coverage. The same is true of the residential areas of Manhattan: the Upper East Side and Upper West Side are built to the 10th-20th floor, depending on how wide the street is, and Harlem and Washington Heights are built to the 5th-6th floor outside the housing projects; this doesn’t conflict with very high densities.

    By the way, Queens isn’t very sprawling – it’s actually the fourth densest county in the US, after Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Its eastern parts look like sprawl because they have a lot of single-use single-family residential zoning, but those single-family boxes are still very dense by US standards, averaging about 5,000-6,000 people per km^2. And the western parts of Queens look exactly how you want Washington to look – organically dense, without much in the way of megastructures.

  7. Alon, I appreciate you reading of my blog, but you’ve misread the post. I think we are in full agreement.

    Queens does have some substantially dense parts, however, the eastern parts (not even that far east!) are streetcar suburbs that are now largely served by Moses Expressways. Beyond that, there are some almost rural parts of the county – before it becomes Long Island and is suburbs until two hours out.

    You should also know that Paris has begun allowing some tall buildings outside of La Defense.

  8. Very interesting, thanks. I believe that Paris is also trying to increase density and pedestrian orientation in La Defénse because while it has the tallest buildings in the city, it is still a product of the 60s and rather auto oriented.

    I’m curious how we could actually increase density in sparse parts of the city (former streetcar suburbs?). Presumably no homeowner is going to want to give up part of their lot to allow mixed-use development between existing buildings, and I would not advocate the destruction of beautiful and unique homes in these neighborhoods. Building skyscrapers is easier because it can be done in existing commercial areas when there is available space, thus affecting a smaller area. I agree that mixed-use zoning and many downtown centers are what is needed, but how do we bring them about?

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