Forget Paris. We must look to the skies if we are to create ‘delightful’ urban centres of the future, says Columbia University’s Vishaan Chakrabarti.  
Hyperdensity – defined as density sufficient to support subways – contributes to the health, prosperity and sustainability of cities. Compared to most forms of human habitation, dense cities are the most efficient economic engines; they are the most environmentally sustainable and the most likely to encourage joyful and healthy lifestyles. So, how do we build delightful cities that make us more prosperous, ecological, fit and equitable? Here I will lay out the factors that impede hyperdensity in our cities today, and the conditions necessary to create hyperdense environments in the future, including great design, responsible preservation and sound urban planning.
Sound urban development is the linchpin of the hyperdense environment. Yet public advocacy for high-density development is extraordinarily low, primarily because its merits are misunderstood.
Even among those who appreciate cities, there is enormous confusion about how best to build density. This is largely because the rationale for hyperdensity is often lost on those who should be its strongest advocates. Paradoxically, many so-called urbanists – broadly defined as urban planners, architects engaged in city building and urban theorists – tend to be enthralled with density yet enraged by real estate development. In fact, today it is a common trope in most schools of architecture and urban planning to believe density is good but development is bad.
Instead, many urbanists consider European capitals such as Paris and Barcelona as the exemplars of ‘good density’. And, indeed, with city centres that support mass transit and walkable neighbourhoods built at more than 80 units per acre (200 units per hectare) – as is the case in Paris – these are some of the most densely built environments in the world. Since they achieve these densities without, as some would say, ugly skyscrapers built by ugly developers, these cities represent the meritorious urbanity – commonly known as ‘low-rise, high-density’ – championed by the design and planning fields.
These fields tacitly or explicitly consider the growing hyperdense cities of Asia as embodiments of ‘bad density’. They generally deride places such as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore as being too congested and characterless, the products of mindless real estate development, inept urban planning and impoverished civic culture. In fact many Asian cities are outpacing European capitals economically, but also in terms of cultural production, mass transit, environmentalism, racial integration and other key metrics. It is unrealistic and irresponsible for any true urbanist to embrace European capitals as models for future development when they are among the most segregated urban centres on Earth and have increasingly unstable finances characterised by debt-driven grands projets.
Cities such as New York, Chicago and Toronto fall somewhere between beloved and bemoaned urbanism: praised for their picturesque brownstone neighbourhoods, criticised for areas where skyscrapers have been allowed to thrive. Brownstone Brooklyn, we are told, is sustainable, community based and charming. Midtown and Lower Manhattan, by contrast, are often derided as the amoral playland of ‘the 1%’, despite the fact those two business districts generate the majority of the tax dollars that fund the extraordinary array of social goods throughout New York City, including schools, parks and affordable housing.
Missing from these simplistic judgements about good and bad urbanism is an in-depth understanding of the origins of low-rise, high-density environments, not to mention an appreciation of the rationale that will necessitate high-rise, high-density environments in the future. The majority of the historic buildings in Paris, Barcelona and Brownstone Brooklyn were built by the private sector – yes, by real estate interests and wealthy businessmen. To be sure, as with any great city, these charming neighbourhoods are framed by grand public parks, lovely streetscapes, efficient transit systems and dignified foreground buildings. But the much-lauded ‘good density’ in such cities is the building stock itself, which was actually built by powerful development interests and typically fuelled by unsavoury capital, such as the spoils of colonialism or labour exploitation, and enabled by top-down government.
Today many planning professionals remain fixated on smallerscale development. They tend to ignore that height limitations have held back the Parisian economy in comparison to the forward-looking redevelopment of London, both at Canary Wharf and within its city centre, which is now marked by a series of glistening and respectful new towers by Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano. There is, in fact, a marked correlation between those European cities that have allowed skyscrapers and those that have successful economies.
Urban residents tend to baulk when they hear about ‘development’ because they fear any change to their neighbourhoods. Every new proposal has come to be construed as a Robert Moses–like mega-project that will ultimately displace people and tear apart the urban fabric. In cities today many residents channel Jane Jacobs [author of Death and Life of Great American Cities] to fight dense, mixed-use, transit-based projects that any true Jacobs acolyte should support. While adaptive re-use of truly historic buildings is essential, existing building stock alone will never accommodate the needs of evolving business or residence, particularly in light of rapid technological and social shifts. Surgical new development remains critical to the rebirth of neighbourhoods and the vitality of urban economies.
The design of new buildings has tremendous significance for cities. While sustainability and functionality are important metrics, innovative architecture has proven to be a significant economic and social driver because of its ability to engender new forms for dwelling, work and repose. Smart architecture is as smart about money as it is about design. Yet the best urban architecture satisfies more than pragmatic concerns; our best buildings conjure civic delight.
Truly great architecture invites, uplifts and advances its city. A great building inspires people through its beauty and material qualities, while enhancing the coherence and contradictions of the street. A great building can reveal a city by exposing its urban structure in new and unfamiliar ways, creating a better collective understanding of its past – and future.
Good planning should be guided by desired objectives rather than prescribed physical outcomes; it should allow for flexible uses, densities and building form in response to evolving market conditions, architectural expression and availability of infrastructure such as mass transit. Cities should unleash the performance-focused power of municipal planning to create public policy and investment that spur private-market reaction, which, in turn, will generate invaluable tax revenues to fund public needs. This is precisely the story behind some of the most successful recent policy-driven urban development, such as the preservation of New York’s High Line and its role as a catalyst for the mixed-use neighbourhood that surrounds it.
My advocacy for hyperdense, vertical cities should by no means be misconstrued as a prescription for everyone to live in an unyielding forest of skyscrapers. At Columbia University, my students and I have been working on a concept I call ‘cap and trade zoning’, which would allow the free flow of air rights within an urban district, with an understanding the overall amount of developable area would be capped in relation to proximity to mass transit. This would result in hyperdensity, to be sure, but would also create a ‘high-low’ city of diverse heights, uses and ages.
Permitting the construction of hyperdensity creates what former New York City deputy mayor Daniel Doctoroff has called a “virtuous cycle of economic development”: new residents generate new taxes, which, in turn, equals better municipal services in the form of good schools, beautiful parks and effective policing. This better quality of life brings more new residents and workers, which requires even denser development, which ultimately results in sound municipal budgets, vibrant cities and round-the-clock ridership for public transportation.
This synopsis of UNSW’s 2014 Paul Reid/Utzon Lecture is adapted from Vishaan Chakrabarti, A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America, illustrated by SHoP Architects (New York: Metropolis Books, 2013) and appears here with the permission of the author and publisher. Footnotes to the article appear online
View footage from the Paul Reid/Utzon Lecture