Moving on Up

Why the Future Belongs Not to Tall Towers, but to Vertical Cities

March 31, 2014

Design Partner, NBBJ

As our nations urbanize and our cities become denser, and as great pressure is put on the boundaries and the green space around our cities, now is the time to rethink the tall tower and its role in making a great city. If we ignore this imperative change, the city will sprawl in one direction, thereby devouring natural resources and habitat, and grow vertically in the other direction, further alienating the people of the city.

By tackling the issue of verticality in the city, both of these challenges can be addressed in transformative ways. Traditional verticality in cities is primarily driven by economics; the typology of the skyscraper is indeed a real estate exercise focused on space efficiency. The “icon” is a result of pure height, and some whimsy, applied to the real estate formula. However, this typology is disconnected from the life of the city: floors upon floors, connected only tenuously by elevators, rise up, creating wall after wall between the inhabitants of the tower and the community of the city. These walls also isolate the people inhabiting the tower, leaving only the framed view of the city beyond to abstractly stare out at, but no real connection to life — the life of people in the community.

It is time to move beyond past-due formulas of mere density and to consider real people and the sense of community that makes a great city. The city remade will evolve a new typology for verticality that is the opposite of today’s off-the-shelf glassy box. The Vertical City is about pulling and folding the life of the city up into the air. It is about porosity in these structures, infinitely expandable systems for growth of a vertical urban environment, the bridging and re-colonizing of freeway corridors with people-friendly structures, vertical boulevards and shopping promenades reconnecting isolated floors in the tall tower, neighborhoods and parks in the sky, vertical farming and self-sustaining energy grids.

These changes in typology and urban topography are beginning to appear as we speak. More structures are being created that are in turn creating internal communities, reaching out and inviting the city in and encouraging maximum interaction. Most of these are isolated incidents, like Morphosis’ Emerson College in Los Angeles or the Tencent Tower that NBBJ designed, or they are theoretical studies like Archigram’s Walking City. In film, the Vertical City is often portrayed as distinctly dystopian; whether Metropolis, Blade Runner or Minority Report, it is always a gloomy, rainy November evening where scheming cyborgs control human affairs, but it does not have to be so dark if we approach the problem through a humanist lens.

This seems perhaps fanciful and hard to imagine given the current tall-tower typology, but a new understanding will emerge by utilizing good urban design principles, limiting our city boundaries and keeping a clear focus on people as drivers for creating the Vertical City. This exploration should look carefully at low-scale, but dense, models of cities that people thrive in, like Barcelona or Paris, and imagine how they could be brought vertically into the sky. Consider how these new structures can be, much more than efficient stacks of office cubicles, organisms that are self-sustaining and renewing.

It is time to realize that the tall tower is obsolete. It will not be able to cope with the massive change that is brewing. It will not breathe life into our growing cities. It will not inspire and improve the lives of all people. The future belongs to the Vertical City!

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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