High Density High Stakes

An essay by Jaron Lubin, written for publication in MARK, September 2017

Recalling hip hop artist De La Soul’s fourth album title ‘Stakes is High’ may be an appropriate message to officials, architects and urban design professionals responsible for designing and building the cities of today and tomorrow.

According to current UN projections, by the year 2050 the world population will increase from 7.5 billion to 9.7 billion and close to 66 percent of this population will live in cities. Rightfully so, there is growing investment in the study of our cities and whether they can be designed to respond and adapt to rapid urban densification.

To accommodate increasing populations in cities, the trend at the end of the 20th century was an emerging mixed-use building typology of office, commercial and residential hybrids - tall towers over retail podium blocks.  These structures, while a showcase of our ability to engineer high and slender, often lack a proper relationship to one another. They fail to integrate into a city’s fabric and struggle to find a relationship with public space; often with little reverence to their surroundings.

How can these buildings be reshaped to contribute to a greater quality of city life?

Take Singapore for example. Over the past two decades, Singapore has been a prolific promoter of novel building and urban scale experiments, resulting in a city center filled with a great diversity of spatial experiences at both ground level and at height. It’s an anomaly among its peer cities of the same size.  New buildings are porous, interlinked with public transit systems below, and sky bridges above, and clad with gardens. Streets are well proportioned and there is a sense that the human experience is prioritized. The combination of smart urban design, stunning high-tech architecture and a command over indoor-outdoor living represents a striking model for other cities to emulate.

Singapore’s success is no accident. In large part, it is made possible by incentives and policy-making by the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority [URA]. The combination of smart policy-making and dialogue between the URA, designers and developers is a true recipe for success.

Let’s take one incentive the URA has created ‘the 45 degree rule’ which allows developers to build open green space amenity decks within buildings, and they can do so for free. The taller the void the more free area can be granted.  This simple rule limits wall-like developments and encourages more outdoor spaces at height.

Another policy inspires terracing building geometry rather than vertical extrusions, which has had a direct visual impact on the city skyline. The URA team is always tuning these incentives to guide and support smart development one way or the other. Each rule has been met with inventiveness, too, on the part of the community of architects and designers who receive them; for instance, the creation of “Skyparks”, “Sky Forests”, and many other types of (sky) innovations, all of which contribute to a vibrant, livable, and dense urban center. Elsewhere around the world architects are also innovating take Bjarke Ingels Group’s series of ‘courtscrapers’ one in New York City and a second proposed for Toronto.  But one cannot rely on these concepts to be bred internal to a pure architectural process.More widespread impact is clearly felt when policy and design aspirations are in dialogue.

Back to Singapore, one finds innovation even in public housing projects. The Singaporean architecture practice WOHA conceived of Skyville Dawson, a public housing estate that positions densely planted terraces with mature trees every 12 stories, breaking up the building scale along its height. The result is more a vertical village than a block tower extrusion. WOHA’s latest book, ‘Garden City Mega City’ refutes the idea that high density equals a reduced quality of life, instead calling for ‘high density high amenity’ architecture.

Then there is also Singapore’s own SkyHabitat, a private high-rise residential development which multiplies the ground plane with three garden bridges crossing between two 38 storey residential towers. Each tower is stepped in profile, creating garden terraces for over one-third of the units. The accessible garden bridges allow more space for residents to spill out from their homes and enjoy the outdoors together. SkyHabitat also ‘reclaims’ 80 percent of the ground area it has displaced in the form of terraced and shared garden spaces.

The principles of a multi-ground, three-dimensional city are not new. In the 1960s, Yona Friedman proposed the concept of La Ville Spatiale, a vision to build levitated three-dimensional structures over cities filled with housing modules, gardens, and public spaces. There is also Habitat ’67 in Montreal designed by Moshe Safdie, which is perhaps the best known built version of a three-dimensional building system. Habitat ’67’s mission was cleverly ‘for everyone a garden.’

So the question remains; can we consider shared spaces up high the true Public Realm, or do these spaces suffer from being privileged environments, surveilled and controlled? And in locales where planting trees and plants may not be sustainable due to climate and geography, what else can we propose aside from putting trees on buildings? Are there other opportunities to innovate with commercial and public programming at height to create a more intricate and interesting three-dimensional experience of the city? 

It is clear that the richest innovation stems from dialogue between policy makers and designers, working in close collaboration with one another. The planning parameters do not need to be complex, and as seen in Singapore, even a simple policy can have a profound impact ensuring that buildings which are interconnected and complementary to each another and better fit to their surroundings.  As our urban centers continue to grow more mega and become more densely populated, it is critical that we continue to prioritize these explorations, these experiments, as they will ensure the cities of the future remain friendly to all of us tiny humans who inhabit them.

Published in Practice on September 26, 2017