Building Up or Building Out

The most common category of complaints that I hear about cities is regarding crowding vs. spread. Some cities like New York seem just too tightly packed while others like Los Angeles spread across vast distances and become extremely inefficient. These are two extremes, but cities tend to fall all along this spectrum and rarely do cities seem to achieve perfect balance.

So which is better? Build massive skyscrapers in a tiny area thereby crowding streets with pedestrians and blocking sun from roads or designate hundreds of square miles for sprawling cities where most builds are detached and less than four or five stories tall? Let's start by examining the issue with both types of cities.

Hong Kong
Hong Kong can easily be designated as a crowding city. The population density is about 16,500 per square mile. To put this in perspective, the average population density across the United States is 88 per square mile. Notice in this picture of Hong Kong, almost all construction is in the form of skyscrapers. Looking out of a window you are very likely to be looking into an adjacent building rather than into the sky. Despite the fact that the city is so built up, not all land is used. The higher elevations around the corners of the photo are virtually undeveloped.

Los Angeles
Los Angeles on the other hand can be seen as a city of sprawl. It is still tightly packed, but because of the low density development, the population density is about 8,000 per square mile. At this level there is plenty of open space, but travelling from place to place can be a nightmare. Cities with such a spread cannot support the vast public transit systems of more dense cities and car traffic can overwhelm the roadways as a result.

Both types of cities have clear problems and may seek to emulate the other type of city. It is relatively challenging for cities to achieve a balance between the two extremes and I do not have a perfect solution to these problems.

My favorite ideal solution is one that I so far have not found in any city. I envision a city with a medium / high density residential urban core, something where the buildings average perhaps 15 stories. Within this central area, cars would not be allowed and so all roadways would be fully open to pedestrians. These walkways would be wide so that the sun would never be blocked by shadows. Around the residential core would be three or four separate downtown areas that are high density. Each of these clusters of downtown would be grouped by industry; for example, one cluster may include banks and financial services while another may be pharmaceutical and biotech companies. Essentially this city would look like a bowl from the sky. This may seem a strange idea, but I would like to see it put in place as an experiment.