Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The argument that skyscrapers spoil cities is flawed. And no building is as ugly as inequality.
Everybody wants a castle. Nice moat, huge fiefdom, cool dragon, all the banners and tapestries and tons of armors bearing halberds and griffins roosting on gargoyles and enemies’ heads on pikes. That’s living.
So many people want castles, in fact, that very few own them. The supply of castles can’t hope to keep up with the demand. Developers hardly ever bother bulldozing huge tracts of land in downtown London or central Paris—the places where people want to live—to build single-dukedom homes. No one could afford the price of land.
Instead, developers build much smaller dwellings in much denser configurations in those places where people congregate. This is called modernity, but not everyone’s on board. Writing in The Globe and Mail, Eric Reguly argues for dialing back the clock a century or two. Skyscrapers and residential towers are ruining the charming European villages of yesteryear, he argues.
What he means is that he prefers the medieval village within the City of London to the buildings that today’s Londoners want and need. He would ask that the desire of others to live in London not interfere with his ability to appreciate old London. Which is the sort of thing that a person says because he wants a castle: The fact that all of the other people also want the same castles in the same places doesn’t impinge on the urgency of his preference.
But preference isn’t his argument. He writes that skyscrapers are bad for cities, which is different, an effort to prove that his preference is legitimate for objective reasons. “The process of turning big cities into clones of Atlanta or Hong Kong can create more than freakish cityscapes,” Reguly writes. “They create long-term problems.”
He lists two ways that density is bad for cities—and he’s wildly wrong on both accounts. One is environmental. Tall buildings “require huge amounts of energy all year round for heating, ventilation and air conditioning,” he writes, while “old buildings in Europe simply rely on thick walls to repel the heat in the summer and retain the heat in the winter.”
All things being equal, that is narrowly correct: It’s surely easier to heat or cool one 19th-century home than maintain a whole skyscraper (though as I understand it, castles are drafty). But all things are not equal. Building a high-density housing tower versus building low-density or single-family homes for an equivalent number of occupants involves really different infrastructure loads. Sprawl, even handsome, lordly, European sprawl, involves decisions that increase carbon emissions—externalities that should be priced when calculating the relative costs for housing developments. Meanwhile, modern construction methods are getting more and more energy efficient. Leeds Castle is going to lose to LEED certification.
Reguly’s second point is that high-rises are “single-purpose structures.” I’m not sure I understand what he means:
Bank towers with enormous open trading floors wired to the fastest communications networks cannot be easily remade into housing, factories or shops. For the most part, they will have to be torn down when they have outlived their usefulness. In Europe, strong old buildings keep getting reinvented, century after century. An 18th-century monastery can be converted into a hospital, a church into condos, and a warehouse into an office.
But that isn’t the case. An office building can be repurposed as housing: Why not? There’s an argument for re-zoning aging office space in Washington, D.C., for example, as low-cost residential buildings in order to generate affordable housing. It would not be the kind of housing that Reguly prefers, perhaps, but then, that’s the whole argument here. The problem with an 18th-century monastery is that there’s only so much monastery to go around.
London has already exceeded its pre-war population; by 2030, the city may boast 10 million residents. Where are all the 18th-century monasteries that will house them? Instead, the city needs to continue promoting density, efficient transit, economic opportunities, and affordable set-asides. That might mean more shadows, more demolition, and even some stinkers like the Walkie-Talkie. But no building is as ugly as inequality.
“Skyscrapers are killing our cities,” writes Charlie Sorrel in Fast Co.Exist, nodding in agreement with Reguly. “Just like cookies, while one or two are fine, if you have too many, everything is thrown out of balance.”
Just… no. Density is not like failing to keep to a diet; it’s not the cookies’ fault. The argument against density is much closer to wishing for a castle. It’s a failure of imagination and a failure to grapple with reality. It’s looking at demand and saying, “Let them eat cake.”