Thursday, October 16, 2008

Building heights and New Urbanism

Some interesting posts from DCist, Ryan Avent, and Ezra Klein on the issues related to Washington D.C.'s limit on the height of buildings(no new building can be more than 20 feet taller than the width of the street it is on).

DCist merely asks the question "should the limits be eliminated", Ryan wants the costs of a height limit properly factored in, while Ezra mainly proclaims how stupid the restrictions are. I'm somewhat ambivalent overall because I'm not particularly well informed on how all various zoning regulations and building codes interact with economics and whatnot... but I think Ezra is conflating a number of things in his complaint.
...the inability to build up means sprawl. It means high rents, and long commutes. It means bad restaurants and fewer grocers. It means that cool cafes don't have the density to support themselves and so everything is a Cosi or an Au Bon Pain. It means that your friends live farther away, and your apartment is smaller than it needs to be. It means that people who don't make much money get pushed very far from where they wish to be.

This kind of thinking is why everybody thinks we want to make them live in 400 square foot apartments in Manhattan whenever we say "sustainable community". Cambridge, the city I live in, has a population density of nearly 16K/square mile and has very few tall buildings(no restriction though, as far as I know), and is one of the most walkable communities in the US. Now, of course my rent is high, my apartment is small, and many of my friends have moved outside the city to roomier and cheaper environs. However, isn't that the case with pretty much every cool neighborhood you've ever heard of? I would argue that instead of ripping up these neighborhoods to try to make them into the mini-Upper East Sides (which isn't a cheap place to live!), you should be building more cool neighborhoods (while hopefully tearing down sprawl). That's not to say they have to be as dense as Cambridge either... New Urbanism doesn't require everyone to live in an apartment... it just requires better designed communities.

picture used under a Creative Commons license by flickr user ZigZagLens