The Icarus City

Tall buildings are all about context

Do you ever wonder what was going through the mind of Icarus when he took to the skies on wax wings, only to drift too close to the Sun and come tumbling down into the sea moments later? Looking up from the ground, it’s easy to say “Icarus, you fool, why fly so high?” but imagine, for a second, what it must have been like to have the gift of flight. Think about that big, wide sky with all of its secrets and breathtaking views. Our cars yell at us when we start to drift out of our lane. Who amongst us can truly say they’d resist the urge, or the drift, to ever greater heights?

Back on solid ground, we might be facing our own Icarus moment. Our cities are rapidly expanding from coast to coast and beyond, but even more tellingly, our residential buildings are getting taller and taller.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study done by RENTCafé’s Florentina Sarac, leveraging data from the platform’s owner Yardi. The study found that the proportion of mid-rise and high-rise buildings is growing compared to low-rise buildings, traditionally by far the largest segment of all. From the 90s to what is currently under construction, the share of buildings that are low-rise has shrunk from 92% to 48%, while mid-rise has grown from 6% to 41% and high-rise from 2% to 11%. The bulk of this shift occurred over the past decade in particular.

Within the high-rise category, buildings are getting even bigger, with average unit count in these properties jumping by ~30 since the 90s, to a high over this decade of 274.

Florentina told me that “Mid- and high-rise apartment buildings are getting increasingly popular for multiple reasons. Zoning and a higher cost of land are just some of the factors pushing developers to build more high-rises instead of low-rise structures. It’s also becoming more popular to build in downtown areas, given that Millennials find it more convenient to live closer to work and entertainment. As these particular areas are more restrictive in terms of available land, it’s a considerably better idea to build taller structures.”

It’s easy to see anecdotal evidence of this trend. Consider the exemplar of the 2000s, Chicago’s Aqua at Lakeshore East, whose 82 floors and undulating walls contain hundreds of apartments as well as a big chunk of space for hotel brand Radisson Blu. New York City will kick off the 2020s with delivery of Central Park Tower, which at 1,550 feet and 131 floors of mostly condos is the tallest residential building in the world.

Our cities are getting taller, but is this a good thing? On paper, the benefits of height and density are clear to see. Florentina’s supply and demand drivers mentioned above are both accurate and compelling. From an urban planning perspective, though, tall buildings aren’t always associated with positive outcomes. The “vertical sprawl” from dense cities packed with skyscrapers can hurt the sort of innovation that typically happens on the ground, for instance. There is some evidence that high-rise living leads to less satisfaction than other types of buildings, and isolation can be more prevalent in these buildings as well.

Perhaps most visibly, huge skyscrapers can disrupt their neighborhood context and end up seeming out of touch with the human scale. While this is largely based on the community perception of what fits with a given neighborhood (meaning there is a different definition in Manhattan versus Boise), tall buildings seem necessarily more disruptive by virtue of their scale than smaller buildings. For another anecdote, I was just in Stockholm, where the relatively short buildings and plentiful green space seem much more welcoming and human-friendly than the sea of skyscrapers I previously spent time amongst in Chicago’s Loop.

Tall buildings are absolutely not a bad thing. The challenge for planners and developers is to gauge whether or not they fit contextually in their target neighborhoods and cities before breaking ground. That means more than just understanding demographics and the benefits of density on paper, it means getting into the nitty gritty of streetscape design and urban planning. Icarus may have had wax wings, but our steel towers deserve just as much foresight lest they meet a similar fate.

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