Boom in skyscraper construction may mean less light for city residents

New skyscrapers add to a city’s skyline and help boost its prestige. But, those same buildings can block light and this is an ongoing concern in New York City and several other major American cities.

For cities, shadows present both a technical challenge — one that can be modeled in 3-D and measured in “theoretical annual sunlight hours” lost — and an ethereal one. They change the feel of space and the value of property in ways that are hard to define. They’re a stark reminder that the new growth needed in healthy cities can come at the expense of people already living there. And in some ways, shadows even turn light into another medium of inequality — a resource that can be bought by the wealthy, eclipsed from the poor.

These tensions are rising with the scale of new development in many cities. As New York’s skyscrapers set height records, Mayor Bill de Blasio has also proposed building 80,000 units of affordable housing over the next 10 years, much of which the city would find room for by rezoning land to build higher. Boston wants to find space for an additional 53,000 units. Toronto in the last five years has built more than 67,000. All of which will inevitably mean more shadow — or even shadows cast upon shadow, creating places that are darker still…

In New York, legislation was introduced in the city council this spring that would create a task force scrutinizing shadows on public parks. Lawmakers in Boston in the last few years have repeatedly proposed to ban new shadows on parkland, though they haven’t succeeded. In San Francisco, the city has tightened guidance on a long-standing law regulating shadows in an era of increasingly contentious development fights. In Washington, where the conflict arises not from luxury skyscrapers but modest apartments and rowhouse pop-ups, the zoning commission voted in April on rules that would prohibit new shadows cast on neighboring solar panels…

As a result, multimillion-dollar apartments in the sky will darken parts of the park [Central Park] a mile away. Enjoyment of the park while actually in the park — a notably free activity in a high-cost city — will be dimmed a little to give millionaires and billionaires views of it from above.

This is an ongoing issue, one that helped prompt zoning laws in the first place and still gets at the basic question of whose city is it anyway? I’m reminded of the suggestion from New Urbanists that there is a proper ratio of building height to the street in order to limit this issue (and also boost street life rather than dwarf it – this is a whole other issue that parts of Manhattan could deal with) but in places where land is incredibly valuable – New York City, Hong Kong, Tokyo, etc. – these design guidelines don’t satisfy the interest in density and the money that can be made.

One drastic thought: shouldn’t all tall buildings in American cities be oriented to the north of major streets or parks or features so as to limit shadows? This is a problem with Central Park: if the tall development was mainly to the east or north, the shadows wouldn’t be as much of an issue (though they would fall elsewhere). Yet, settlement patterns didn’t originally occur with these guidelines in mind.

Redesigning the playground to free children and adults

Here is an interesting example of architecture and design at work: putting together a playground in New York City that will free children and adults rather than burden them.

In Pamela Druckerman’s “Bringing Up Bébé,” the playground forms a fertile backdrop for her pop-sociological observations about child-rearing, French vs. American style. The upper-middle-class Manhattan moms (she can tell by the price of their handbags) follow their kids around the gated toddler playground narrating their activities. The French moms sit on the edge of the sandbox and chat with other adults. The Brooklyn dads follow their children down the slide. The French moms sit on a bench and chat with other adults. Her theory, a bestselling one, is that French parenting consists of more non, more équilibre, and thus more time for adults to be adults.

It never occurs to her that maybe it is the playgrounds that encourage parents to act this way. Most New York playgrounds are designed for the protection of children: padded surfaces, equipment labelled by age appropriateness, and a ban on unaccompanied adults. Frankly, it is hard to see why an adult without a child would want to enter. There’s often little seating, minimal shade, and no place to set down a coffee except in a stroller cup holder. As for those parents who don’t want to helicopter, the perimeter benches can be far from where children play, sight lines blocked by the bulky climbing structures. Standard New York playgrounds are made for a single activity—child’s play—not family socializing or even adult enjoyment.

The planners of New York City’s Governors Island, an ice-cream-cone-shaped piece of land a half mile from the end of Manhattan, see play somewhat differently, and are designing their first thirty acres of park and public space accordingly. “People spend several hours here” on the weekends, says Leslie Koch, president of the Trust for Governors Island. Free ferries from Manhattan and Brooklyn bring visitors in for extended afternoons. “You wander through the island, you have an idea or you may not, the kids run around. There aren’t precedents for that kind of place. It’s different than a beach or an urban park, or even a state park, where you go to barbecue.” She adds, “Early on we said we didn’t want to have playgrounds, but we didn’t say what that meant.”…

“If you create a park-like environment and people feel really free, adults hang out and participate like children do,” Geuze says. Contrast the concept for Liggett Terrace with the experience at Pier 6 at Brooklyn Bridge Park, an access point for the ferry to Governors Island. To date, Pier 6 consists of four landscaped, gated playgrounds, one with swings, one with water, one with sand, and one for climbing. There’s a separate beach-volleyball court, and a separate park building with food. If you aren’t pushing your kid on the swing, narrating every to and fro, the only place to sit is the springy rubber ground.

It would be interesting to hear more about how this new kind of park would change people’s behaviors. The article seems to suggest that certain park designs necessarily lead to certain behaviors; is this always the case? Does it require a critical mass of people

This reminds me of some arguments about parks from earlier days. Take Central Park in New York City as an example. Olmstead and Vaux designed the park to be more natural and take advantage of the natural topography and features. This was contrasted with more formal European parks which often had carefully cultivated gardens and water features. Central Park became beloved even as it is still fairly unusual in big cities as it can be difficult to find that much land and leave it relatively unencumbered.


Bringing nature back to the city while still accepting cars and suburbs?

In modern history, the city has often been seen as the antithesis of nature or the countryside. With dirty factories, a multitude of noisy vehicles, and buildings crammed on top of each other, Americans (and others) responded in part by moving out from the city and into suburbs when the opportunity arose.

But there are still arguments about whether nature can return to the city and what exactly it might mean:

The following lies at the heart of the agenda of a growing number of designers and architects who refer to themselves as “landscape urbanists”: “the notion that the most important part of city planning is not the arrangement of buildings, but the natural landscape upon which those buildings stand.”…

“Proponents envision weaving nature and city together into a new hybrid that functions like a living ecosystem. And instead of pushing people closer together in service of achieving density … landscape urbanism allows for the possibility of an environmentally friendly future that includes spacious suburbs, and doesn’t demand that Americans stop driving their convenient cars. Americans have decided how they want to live, they argue, and the job of urban designers is to intelligently accommodate them while finding ways to protect the environment.”

And that’s the rub—the bit about cars and “spacious suburbs.” Architects who believe that a fresh commitment to urban living offers the best path to a sustainable future are deeply disconcerted by this quasi-green rhetoric, and by the way it’s catching on at trendy architecture schools. They call it a “a misguided surrender to suburban sprawl.”

This is part of a larger debate about land, density, lifestyles, and government funding: can we be truly “green” as long as there are any suburbs and cars? It sounds like one side says we need to compromise with the pro-suburban forces in America while another is holding out for a more urban world. Such a dividing line affects issues including sprawl, gas taxes, land use, high-speed rail, and more.

I’m not sure why it has to be an either/or question. Cities could adopt different tactics. Is Central Park a failure because it is compromised by several roads running through it? This seems more like an ideological battle rather than a discussion about what could happen in American cities in the near future.