Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Taller is Better, Ed?

I was able to rewatch Harvard economist Ed Glaeser on the Daily Show on DVR this morning. Predictably nothing terribly groundbreaking was unearthed in a 5 minute interview where the interviewer didn't read the book and the interviewee tries to cram as much into his answers that he possibly can, fully aware of the impending commercial break.

I did however particular like his statement on the importance of the entwining of city and web in the Egyptian Revolution. As he stated, "it wasn't as simple as putting Hosni Mubarak on "block" or "Relationship Status: It's Complicated" (my paraphrase). But, instead facebook and twitter were utilized for mass interpersonal organization.

This is where Malcolm Gladwell, and admittedly I'm no fan of his lazy contrariness (it's so easy a computer program could do it!), misses the point about twitter altogether (and relatedly, many critics of twitter, as I once was, misunderstand as well). As I tweeted after reading his article:

What Gladwell doesnt understand is that twitter is the tool, the city is the platform. not vice versa

It is these and several other insights about the potentiality of cities that Glaeser implicitly, and then in turn explicitly, understands. However, I feel compelled to reiterate my stance against his paean to skyscrapers as panacea meme. I like skyscrapers. You could say I live in one (33 stories). However, the issue of skyscrapers as a symbol of density is clouding Glaeser's role as "objective" economist where every decision must be based on the numbers, quantitative.

I've outlaid many points both qualitative and quantitative (or at least pointing out that some of the numbers get fuzzy or immeasurable) in an attempt to add some nuance to skyscrapers vs well, anything else. See the end of this post for that discussion.

But what about the measurable numbers for how "green" skyscrapers are. I found this graphic from a paper on location efficient housing by Hank Dittmar, et al., of the Prince's Foundation and converted it into a jpg for posting. It shows the amount of Vehicular Miles Driven by Density of the source neighborhood, the resident's home. You can see that environmental gains due to less driving are virtually negligible once you get to 50-75 units per acre. As a reference point, much of Addison Circle is designed at 80 units/acre and above and Addison is mostly 4-story buildings.*

*I don't know if this graph is for net or gross density. Since it is covering broad areas of cities, I am assuming it is gross density for the simplicity of calculations. Gross density includes public ROW, the space within roads. Net density is only the amount of units divided by privately held (developable) acreage.

Density can be achieved without going up. You can achieve similar location efficiencies with lower, cheaper (ie not concrete and steel), and I would argue better qualitative urbanism that is lower-scaled. There is also an argument to be made that the "efficiency gains" of skyscrapers end up putting greater stress on local infrastructure by bringing in more material often from further away locations. The higher density (and no less driving) also generally means a bigger garage, which means bigger block and more design gymnastics designers must do to "urbanize" a parking garage.

As any serious student of sustainability knows, the building itself is never sustainable, but as a part of an interconnected, walkable neighborhood it can be. Glaeser has a lot of good and necessary things to say in his work. To hang his hat on singular buildings is puzzling, if not troubling, considering the math and the evidence, which should be his forte, doesn't really support him.

Of course, this is probably more due to the press coverage and book reviews picking up on this particular proposed solution because it is much simpler conceptually than unwinding the myriad of policies and subsidies propounding sprawl, which Glaeser also recommends <--- the things we should really be focusing on rather than new skyscraper vs. historic preservation.

Or he could just come to Dallas where we've already turned 99.9% of the buildings worth saving into rubble sub-base for parking lots. Of course, we also lack the demand pressure of NYC to go up, up, and away. Instead, we should just focus on more and more 2-, 3-, and 4-story urbanism. The kind that we can afford.