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Such Great Heights: The Promise and Peril of Tall Buildings

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When it comes to real estate, London and New York can seem like transatlantic copies of each other. Stratospheric prices, increasing worries about income disparity, and a boom in ultra-luxe residential construction have many residents worried about the exponential pace of change in both metropolises, as more and more cranes cluster around high-end neighborhoods. Two recent stories have crystalized concerns about the current vertical boom and offered seemingly alternate reactions. In New York, Manhattan's Community Board 5 called for a moratorium on constructing towers over 600 feet tall, putting the brakes on further building along Billionaires Row, a stretch of Midtown on 57th Street near Central Park. (A report by the city's Municipal Art Society, The Accidental Skyline, suggests new towers will cast massive shadows across the park). In London, a group of housing experts released Superdensity: The Sequel, a report with suggestions to moderate the effects of the city's tower-fabricating frenzy (263 buildings over 20 stories are in some stage of development). With zoning regulations falling behind both construction technology and developers showing no sign of relenting, what's a mega-city to do?

Both the report and the response present many different ways to frame the debate. Is this about public versus private space, development versus parks, rich versus poor, or a combination of all three? What groups in both cities grasp, and are grasping at, is a means to moderate rapid construction without sacrificing the character of the city. While the MAS report says today's ultra-tall residential towers cater to the global elite, as opposed to earlier skyscrapers that stand as commercial and civic centers for the masses, it also captures the allure of these structures and a vibrant skyline, "the most stupendous unbelievable spectacle since the hanging gardens of Babylon."

Opponents of construction in New York argue that the city's as-of-right system, which allows for construction without a lengthy reviews process, requires much-needed reform and more public input, but the issue has also been framed as a crusade to protect public lands. A similar situation occurred in 1987, when the Municipal Art Society mobilized protestors to assemble for a "Stand Against the Shadow" in opposition to the proposed New York Coliseum. A crowd of 800, including celebs such as Paul Newman and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, stood in line in Central Park and opened black umbrellas to simulate the shadow that would be cast across the park. It made for great imagery, and at the time, MAS won out. But now, with the Time Warner Center standing at that same site, more integrated into the surrounding neighborhood than the initial Coliseum proposal, MAS is fighting a similar battle against even taller towers, whose steady crawl upwards makes them more an inevitability than interim proposal.

Hyperdensity addresses this inevitability, proposing a broad array of mixed-use solutions that seek towers that make good neighbors. These suggestions—including mixed-use and responsible developments, focusing on mid-rise buildings to increase residential density, and promoting street life and street-level living—take a city-planning approach to solving the issue, spreading out residential growth and fixating on mid-level buildings that don't disrupt the city fabric.

While it's a sensible, citywide approach, structures like the Shard and a significant queue of new projects suggests the demand the supertalls isn't going anywhere. Perhaps the solution—better oversight and contemporary zoning laws—also requires a new look at supertall structures that aren't just starchitect statement pieces, but also new public spaces. New buildings such as the Shanghai Tower include generous park space within its many stories, while projects such as Stefano Boeri's Vertical Forest or CF Møller's wooden skyscraper integrate more public green space within the high-rise concept. Maybe the best way to allay our concerns that supertalls will stand astride our public spaces and spoil our civic landscape is to encourage designs that feature commons spaces that do a better job of inviting the public inside.

· More on Supertall Towers in New York [Curbed NY]
· Spooked by Tall Tower Boom, Midtown Residents Propose Revised Approval Process [Curbed NY]
· The Shanghai Tower is the World's New Sustainable Supertall [Curbed]