Too Tall

“For those that might still claim that skyscrapers are symbols of progress, the evidence is clear they now represent progress towards societal collapse.”

                                                                ~ Architects Declare

Growing up in Texas and spending time in Oklahoma, I saw that our big cities tended to be predictably alike — tall buildings in the center amid a desert of daytime-only businesses, surrounded by urban sprawl. The newer developments were further out and the closer-in areas were generally less safe, wealthy or maintained. On a visit to St. Louis, I was frankly amazed at the decay, congestion and condition of the buildings on the edges of downtown. It felt dangerous and made our “big cities” look positively comfy.

After college, I traveled across Europe and was amazed at their “old” cities. First, where I came from “old” was about fifty years, and maybe there were a few structures a century old and deemed historic. Other places I had seen, such as New York or Boston, could still only stretch to boast parts of town occupied for a couple of hundred years. Second, in Europe there seemed to be managed chaos in how the cities worked. Pedestrians and mass transit supplied most transportation needs and, as a result, most of the center areas were well-kept, relatively safe and comfortable. Third, there were usually lots of residential buildings in the central areas, with people moving around even after “office” hours. The downtown functioned as a town 24/7, not a commercial desert.

The United States’ fascination with tall buildings is becoming an outdated concept. The downtown model that thrives during office hours, but dies afterwards is unhealthy for users as well as for the city organism as a whole. It causes social displacement, as daily occupiers flee to the suburbs, becoming part-timers both there and downtown. A healthy community is harder to establish and maintain in both places.

Lloyd Alter quotes urban planner Javier Quintana de Una, “It is no longer enough to simply build tall … We must approach density in ways that are meaningful, creative, innovative, carbon neutral, and affordable. Only then can we support balanced and healthy living, working, and civic and social engagement.”

Joseph Allen and others note, “Just about everybody understands that getting off fossil fuels is central to our climate goals. What few people understand, however, is that we won’t be able to do it without fundamentally changing our buildings … Buildings consume an average of about 40 percent of U.S. energy. And in some cities, that number is much higher — upward of 70 percent.”

Alter continues, “Architects Declare points to studies that show that office buildings with more than 20 stories use two and a half times as much electricity as buildings less than six stories. They stated, ‘The unavoidable fact is that, in terms of resource efficiency, the embodied carbon in their construction and energy consumption in use, skyscrapers are an absurdity,’”

And more, “Very tall buildings use a disproportionate amount of steel and concrete. Some say that the alternative is sprawl, but Paris, Barcelona, and Montreal prove otherwise, demonstrating that you can get significant urban density without going super-tall.”

Quoting Architects Declare, “Times however, have changed, and skyscrapers are no longer what they were. We are now in a planetary emergency and we have very few years left in which to chart a new and safe course for humanity. The evidence now is overwhelming that tall buildings hinder, rather than assist, our efforts to address key challenges of climate breakdown, resource depletion and biodiversity loss.”

Alter again quotesQuintana de Una, “The relationship between policy, buildings, people, urban density, urban space, interior space, and infrastructure is key.”              

He then adds, “We all agree on that; let’s just get over this height fetish.”                              

Additional Information:

Joseph G. Allen, Parichehr Salimifard and Jonathan Buonocore, Want to Phase Out Fossil Fuels? We Must Fundamentally Change Our Buildings, September 26, 2022, Washington Post

Lloyd Alter, Is the Age Of The Skyscraper Over? (It Should Be), November 23, 2022, TreeHugger

Architects Declare “is a network of architects organizing for radical change in the building sector around climate, social justice, and biodiversity. Architects Declare started in the UK in 2019 by inviting architectural firms to sign on as signatories to a joint declaration and has grown into a global network with declarations from 23 countries.”

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