The Limits of Density

© kaysha
In an article published by The Wall Street Journal called For Creative Cities, the Sky Has Its Limit, Richard Florida discusses the development of urban environments and their relative successes.  As human migrations are trending towards big cities, the design and appropriation of space within these cities is increasingly important.  Florida cites that trends indicate that by 2050 cities will make up 70% of the global population.  With so many people, elevate density within cities will be unavoidable, but what Florida emphasizes is that it isn’t just density that makes a vibrant and thriving city.  Citing and New York City as examples of dense urban environments, Florida explains the differences in their relative architectural and urban developments and the prosperity that follows. The fundamental difference? The prevalence of mixed-use neighborhoods in New York City that overpower the innovation of strictly financial districts of either New York or .

Let’s look at these examples after the break.

Shanghai © MikeBehnken

The density of big cities provides the man power and diversity that inspires innovation and creative force in the industry.  But, Florida points out that the rush to density and the rush to build taller and taller buildings actually nullifies the innovation that a large population can produce.  These giant buildings, writes Florida, operate as vertical suburbs.  They create very specific, specialized pathways along which people travel that isolate functions and uses and “mute” the “street life”, a term used by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities to describe the spontaneous interactions that occur along a busy street that has a variety of uses by many different people.

Shanghai Tower - Courtesy of Gensler

Florida compares Shanghai and New York City to demonstrate why innovation is not necessarily rooted in density.  Shanghai is going through a booming period in which skyscrapers are rising to higher and higher heights, dominating the urban environment.  The 632-meter tall Shanghai Tower by Gensler, for example, is a mixed-use tower that is described as a “self-contained city”.  While the community within may have spontaneous interactions in the lobby or in the elevators, the building and the people inside of it are essentially isolated from the context surrounding it.

Shanghai Tower - Courtesy of Gensler

Take a look at the landscape that the tower is situated in: islands of blocks, each with its own tower.  The density that urbanists claim is so essential is stranded and isolated in this type of context because people will tend to stay on their own islands within the mixed-use skyscrapers that provide all of their amenities.  The very nature in which they stand apart from one another is an indication of what Florida refers to when he describes skyscrapers as bringing on a suburban quality to city life. The common conception of the suburban environment is its isolation – first separating the life of the city from domestic life and then separating suburban communities from each other by highways, making them accessible only by car.  Here, the towers separate people from the street.

Florida refers to studies that indicate the rate of innovation is faster in New York City than Shanghai. He attributes this to the mixed-use nature of many of New York City’s neighborhoods. They are not all as creatively successful, but he compares what happens in NY’s dense financial district with Chelsea and the Meatpacking District.

New York City’s financial district has the same drawbacks that Florida describes about Shanghai.  ”Its [New York City's] hubs of innovation aren’t the great skyscraper districts that house established corporate and financial headquarters, media empires and wealthy people,” Florida writes, “The city’s recent high-tech boom—500 start-ups in the last half decade, among them Kickstarter and Tumblr—is anchored in mid-rise, mixed-use neighborhoods like the Flatiron District, Midtown South, Chelsea and TriBeCa.”

In an interview on NPR with Neal Conan, Florida talks about the value of mixed-use buildings and diversity of functions within a district.  He emphasizes the importance of the street level and its potential.  Florida credits David Lewis, professor from Carnegie Mellon University, for teaching that “even when you pack density, the street level, the storefront level, the ability for people to mix and mingle and not be stuck in these giant plazas, no man’s land, that is between big buildings, these wind-swept corridors” is what provides a city with diversity.  He mentions that New York City has a a phenomenal comeback – that it is doing it right.  Even looking back at New York City’s financial district, in recent years it has transformed along the west side with the addition of Battery Park City, a waterfront park that draws more than just tourists, and high-rise residences that promotes local business growth.

High Line 23 - Courtesy of Neil M Denari Architects

The High Line that snakes its way through Chelsea and the Meatpacking District along New York’s west side has stimulated the growth and redevelopment of empty lots and abandoned warehouses along its route.  For many years, Chelsea’s old warehouses have been a haven for emerging art galleries and showrooms.  Now that the area has gotten much more cultural feedback, people are more than willing to have the High Line as part of their backyard.  New residential buildings are emerging throughout the two neighborhoods, among the warehouses, manufacturing buildings and rail lines.  High Line 23 by Neil M Denari Architects is a great example of the kind of residential work that is hitting the area.

DVF Studio Headquarters / Work AC © Elizabeth Felicella

These old buildings are continually being renovated for use as modern offices, like DVF Studio Headquarters designed by Work AC.  Many of these buildings max out at ten stories and are visually stimulating on the street level.  They have the potential to be converted to storefronts with a variety of shops and uses.  What keeps people drawn to this area is its diversity of functions and it seems that urban planners and architects are learning from that.  It’s clear from successful districts and from the most thriving neighborhoods, that balance is key.  Florida quotes Jane Jacobs when she warned, “Densities can get too high if they reach a point at which they begin to repress diversity instead of to stimulate it.”

Images via Flickr user MikeBehnken and kasha, licensed under Creative Commons.
Cite: Vinnitskaya, Irina. "The Limits of Density" 08 Aug 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 May 2015. <>
  • ArchitectureRichmond

    As undervalued as urban planning and design are in our society, I think this is an overly architectural interpretation of innovation in cities, a vague term in an of itself. Correlation is not causation; the presence of mixed use neighborhoods are not the only cause of innovation in New York City or Shanghai. They may help foster it in some cases but it is likely derivative of it just as often. This narrow, architectural perspective discounts things like education, demographics, politics, and countless other socio-economic factors.

    As far as sky scrapers go, they are still a young medium in our world. Many skyscrapers, particularly in cities such as Miami and Dubai isolate people from a more traditional, pedestrian oriented urban experience and hurt street life. The same is true in some areas of Shanghai’s CBD. At the same time, a building with ground floor retail that meets the sidewalk would be no less effective in propagating the urban environment at 20 stories than it would at 5. If there is no mid-tower shopping mall/ movie theatre/ barber shop/ so on, then it would cause increased street density in addition to increased vertical density.

    To use New York as an example, no one would suggest that the Flat Iron and the other tall buildings around Madison Square Park would be better off at 5 or 6 stories. Their height increases residential and office density making ground floor space and sidewalks more active. No ultimatum can be made about such a broad architectural form. It all depends on the application of a specific design in its context.

  • joash obare

    Great article. very issue packed!

  • Googhegs

    From what I gleaned, the issue of building height isn’t the heart of the issue, its that current skyscraper design self-contains its inhabitants, thus reducing interaction with the outside environs as the building supplies the needs of its inhabitants. Smaller buildings, lacking the space to house such vast amentites, must rely on the street level to provide these services/goods, which serve to further foster community and sharing.

  • JK

    Another article glorifying NYC… It’s time the US stops looking inwardly to define good design and starts looking to European and Asian cities for precedent on how cities can thrive