|Towers in a park, in a former communist country|
|"Neighborhood" in Anjou, a borough of Montréal: a variant of the towers in a park, towers in a parking lot... proof that even a terrible idea can get much, much worse|
|Low-rise apartment buildings in a park, Stockholm suburb|
|Same area seen from the sky|
|Another example, this time in Montréal, I almost rented out this place before I decided for an apartment in a multiplex, a choice I do not regret|
Width, the unspoken factor
|Paris, though the shared walls and uniform height gives at first an impression of an unbroken building more than 100 meters long, each "wall" is made up of 13- to 15-meter wide individual buildings|
The importance of width here should be evident. The human scale is a point of view 1,5 to 1,9 meter-high and going along at 5 km/h (around 1,5 meter per second, 5 feet per second). So if a building is 10-meter wide, it takes only 6 seconds to cross it, at which point one's environment changes, you were in front of one building, now you're in front of another one. But if a building is 60-meter wide (200 feet), it takes you the most part of a minute to cross it (40 seconds). It takes quite a bit of time for the environment to change around you, you have the impression of being quite slow.
Blank walls: a specialty of wide buildingsIt's important for buildings to have interesting features to keep people interested during a walk. And nothing is more interesting to people than other people. In that regards, I think doors and balconies are great, because they offer the promise of human activities. Theoretically, windows could do the same, but in reality, they're not that great as, especially in dense areas, residents will tend to make them opaque to preserve their privacy.
|Shuttered windows in Tours, France|
|Blank wall in Stockholm|
Meanwhile, let's look at the opposite of this blank wall, triplexes in Verdun, a neighborhood of Montréal.
|Multiplexes in Verdun: narrow buildings with lots of doors and balconies, and small setbacks|
Skinny towers: a special feature of Japanese citiesUp to now, I've shown a lot of examples of what not to do, about wide buildings that keep walkability down, but here is now the radical alternative: narrow but tall buildings.
|Skinny towers in Ginza|
|Buildings in Gotanda, a neighborhood of Tokyo|
|A part of Yokohama seen from Landmark Tower, you have wide towers to the left, but narrow towers to the right|
Anyway, the result of such skinny towers is that they don't impact the walkability of the streets much, if at all. They're not disturbing like the wide buildings seen earlier as they offer a varied walking environment and their narrowness means that almost all of their front is dedicated to an entry point for the building, without any blank wall. It results in streets formed of a multitude of doors, one after the other, or even of small stores.
I've spoken of Sapporo recently, a much more recent city, and its modernity means that it tended to have wide streets, but also relatively wide lots. Meaning that their towers were wider on average.
|Sapporo, some wide buildings, some less so|
|Sapporo from the air|
|Sapporo from the air|
|Sapporo, the wide building to the left is actually split in two narrow stores on ground level|
Here is another example:
|Still in Sapporo, this building has actually 4 or 5 stores plus a door for the apartments that are visible on this photo|
In conclusionI don't think building height matters much in terms of providing an interesting and human-centric built environment for people. The reality is that human beings tend to look down, not up, when they're walking, what's most important is populating streets at eye-level with human-friendly features: doors, balconies, verandas, store fronts, etc... and to make sure that there is a great variety of buildings on the way to provide for interesting and diverse environments. For that purpose, the important thing is to have narrow buildings, whether they have shared walls or not, it doesn't matter.
The entire debate on height is probably from a mistake, from misidentifying what makes the large, tall buildings so deleterious to street life. It's not that they are tall, but that they are wide. Wide low-rise buildings are no better.