Urban Planning for the Future - Vertical Cities and Compact Development

Max Katz-Balmes

For my final project, I decided to explore a relatively modern theory of urban planning, the idea of building vertically rather than horizontally. Over the past few centuries, urban planners have designed central cities as concentrated urban areas containing office spaces, tourist attractions, and businesses. They have then surrounded these central areas with huge, sprawling suburbs for people to live in (Winey). As the global population continues to grow, these suburbs continue to move further away from cities. Suburban life can have many benefits over urban residence. The potential advantages of suburbs over urban centers include lower crime rates, superior school systems, and quieter, more peaceful environments (Giammo). But, there are also several downsides to sprawling, low-density metropolitan areas. Commutes are long (both in distance and time), suburbs often lack the amenities and diversity of urban areas, ecosystems can be destroyed in the creation of suburbs, and most importantly sprawl puts a strain on the environment by creating carbon emissions from new construction and greater vehicle miles traveled (Ewing et al.).

Because of the negative externalities of sprawl, many developers have begun to advocate building upward rather than outward. For instance, Gensler, the planning firm behind Shanghai Tower, promotes a model based on mixed-use development, a type urban development that blends and integrates residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, and industrial uses into a small area (a building, a block, or even an entire neighborhood). Benefits of mixed-use development include cheaper, more diverse housing, a stronger neighborhood character, and “land-use synergy” (e.g. residents provide customers for retail which provide amenities for residents). But more importantly, this type of development reduces distances between housing, workplaces, retail areas, and other amenities and helps make communities more walkable, pedestrian-friendly places (Ewing et al.). The second tallest building in the world, Shanghai Tower, is an extreme example of mixed-use development, in which many of these necessary components of city life are incorporated into a single, environmentally sustainable building.

The first article/video I presented to the class, “The New Urban Planning: Look Upward, not Outward,” discussed the benefits of the tower and of sustainable vertical development in general. It also touched on the idea that high density and verticality are not inherently sustainable and that correct implementation of these concepts is required to create lasting, attractive, improved cities.

The tower is the closest anyone has come to creating a vertical city, a theoretical concept discussed in “Vertical Cities could be the Future of Architecture,” the second article presented. A vertical city would theoretically be a single structure of interconnected towers supporting thousands of residents and providing them with all of the components of a city, from housing to hospitals to schools to recreation to government buildings. The article weighed the potential advantages and disadvantages of vertical cities and emphasized that a lot of innovation is required before these cities can come to fruition. Advocates for vertical cities argue that they would “save energy, support a growing population, … preserve land for food production, nature, and recreation,” and improve convenience (Robinson). However, detractors claim that these cities would feel claustrophobic, that they would be unsafe, and that they would discourage people from ever leaving their homes (Robinson).

In addition to the resources on vertical cities, I presented two articles related to sprawl. The first, a National Resources Defense Council report titled Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change, discussed the correlation between suburban sprawl, vehicle miles traveled, and CO2 emissions. The report also advocated compact, mixed-use development and cited studies showing the benefits of density with respect to climate change.

The second article, “Here’s Why Suburban Sprawl Cancels Out The Climate Benefits Of City Living,” discouraged a one-size-fits-all model and instead contended that each city’s development strategy should be based upon its unique position and situation. The article also argued that while sprawl is related to increased CO2 emissions, the benefits of suburban life could outweigh the environmental degradation. However, the author failed to provide much evidence to support this claim.

In the discussion, the class debated the merits of vertical cities, whether they are feasible/equitable, and whether or not there are alternative development solutions to overpopulation/environmental degradation. There did not appear to be a clear consensus on vertical cities, but everyone seemed to agree that sustainable development strategies are necessary for a long, prosperous future for our planet.

Articles for Discussion:

Ewing, Reid, Keith Bartholomew, Steve Winkelman, Jerry Walters, and Don Chen. Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. Rep. National Resources Defense Council, Oct. 2007. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Kroh, Kiley. “Here’s Why Suburban Sprawl Cancels Out The Climate Benefits Of City Living.” ThinkProgress.org. ThinkProgress, 7 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Robinson, Melia. “Vertical Cities Could Be the Future of Architecture.” Business Insider. Business Insider Inc., 22 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Winey, Dan. “The New Urban Planning: Look Upward, Not Outward.” Gensleron.com. Gensler, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.

Other Works Cited:

Giammo, Thomas. “The Benefits of Suburban Sprawl.” Washingtonpost.com. The Washington Post, 23 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.


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