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The Big Picture: City Skylines

Sep 04, 2009

by Lydia Heard, VIA’s Urban Designer and Planner, and author of citywalker

What does a city’s skyline say about the aspirations, ambitions and desires of its founders and continuum of citizenry over time? How are these ambitions embodied in the planning that shapes a city until it achieves that significant, identifiable form? Do the forces that shape the skyline, that big picture the world sees from afar, also affect the inner life of the city, it’s heart and soul, the public realm of the street, of civic space, and the success or failure of access for those from all walks of life?

city skylines
Let’s look at some well known city skylines. Often they are ranked by the number of very tall buildings, the “High” city. Prime examples are Hong Kong and New York. These are centers of world trade and commerce, bustling with competition and the desire to be noticed; to be bigger, taller, more striking than the neighbor. These cities also have geographic constraints: Manhattan fills its island footprint, and Hong Kong is squeezed upward between mountain and water. Toronto is another High city, and a classic example of the form such a city takes when it has room to spread out. The CBD takes on a mountain form which gives way to a surrounding spread of low-rise development. Off to the side of the CBD is a tall, iconic identifying landmark. Looks like one of our cities closer to home, doesn’t it?

Paris and London
Then there are “Low” cities, often world capitals, such as Paris or London. These were built out to their mature form, one of densely filled blocks at a uniform height, before the age of the high-rise. Post-skyscraper they make decisions to stay low and preserve views of some central civic or iconic monument – the Eiffel Tower; St. Paul’s Cathedral. A civic pride of place is put first, before the individualist corporate competitive impulse, which is pushed to the edges, to La Defense or Canary Wharf – although London has been permitting more very tall buildings in the central city.

What form do our two cities take?
Seattle looks remarkably like Toronto, except with a backdrop of mountains. There are geographic constraints, but there was enough land for a spread of low-density development, which in Seattle consists of well-established bungalow neighborhoods with their own urban village centers. The mountain form of the CBD is a clue to what was most important in development of the city. Now battles are being fought around our very visible and beloved civic icon, as South Lake Union primes for development. Should new development stay low to preserve views of the Space Needle? Can some towers be allowed, and if so what shape, how many, and where? Seattle is a combination city, wrestling with some of the decisions the Low cities have made.

Vancouver has a rather unique skyline among major cities, a forest of glittering residential towers, similar in height and form, spaced for light and views, aided in its upward rise by the constraints of the central peninsula. Their icons are natural; the dramatic and immediate mountain backdrop, forested park, water and beaches. Aside from visions of a mystic island, Avalon, the Fortunate Isle, the Isle of Glass – it most nearly resembles a high-class resort city. This is also a clue to what was important in developing the city.

Seattle and Vancouver had similar beginnings: Location, climate, industrial potential with timber, a railroad and a port as aids to commercial development. Other than geographic constraints, what led them to such differences in urban form? A hint can be found in their early beginnings.

In Seattle, the first large land claim holders, in the interest of developing the city, sold land cheaply to anyone who wanted to build the right sort of business on it. One even donated a huge tract for a university. The Seattle founders’ desire (beyond a failed attempt to become the state capitol) was for the city to become a Manhattan of the west coast, a major center of commerce.

Vancouver founders had a different vision. Almost the first act of the city after incorporation was to preserve the 100 hectare military reserve at the West End which would later become known as Stanley Park. Forward thinking? In a way, perhaps. They were envisioning land speculation for wealthy residential development in that area. This residential speculation took a front seat before business development from the start, and established the desire value of the local natural environment.

What did these early choices mean for their respective cities?
Seattle took a more traditional Central City form, with a Central Business District connected by streetcars to surrounding neighborhoods. This pattern followed the march of progress to become one of commercial towers competing with their neighbors for attention through height or iconic design. While visually interesting, especially from a distance, this tends towards an oppressive street environment of dark canyons and lifeless evenings not conducive to livability because, well, no one was meant to live there. It also required vehicular access for the mass ingress and exodus of workers twice a day – an adjacent freeway or two, never mind the waterfront, and every other street a traffic arterial.

In Seattle these things were accepted for the sake of the commercial ambitions of the city. Because the surrounding village neighborhoods were so desirable, it is only in recent years that ideas of a more urban sort of livability have gained increasing acceptance and urgency. Shifting the direction and intent of planning policy is like turning a cargo ship: It takes a lot of effort to change the momentum.

Vancouver v Seattle2
Vancouver, starting with its initial residential aspirations, took a different tack. High-rise residential towers first started sprouting in the West End even before the Space Needle rose for Expo ’62 and generated momentum for the ensuing rise of Seattle’s CBD. In the ‘60s a planned highway into downtown Vancouver was fought and defeated by residents of the neighborhood it would have destroyed. This somewhat stunted their CBD growth, and commercial development has since spread into smaller tower developments around the metro area, spurred and aided by an excellent and growing higher-order transit system.

Vancouver’s own Expo in ’86 pushed another surge for building out the central city in the Vancouver residential tower and streetwall form, with even more emphasis on livability. This was aided in the ‘90s by an influx of new residents who were accustomed to tower living – because they came from a world-class “high” city: Hong Kong. Now the Olympics driven development south of the peninsula is taking a new form, but livability and sustainability are even more at the forefront, because the momentum has been there all along and is gaining steam.

Vancouver v Seattle3
It seems that in terms of livability, Seattle is struggling to change direction, and Vancouver has a distant lead.
But what about accessibility? That forest of towers, all somewhat similar, not really competing for attention, looks pretty egalitarian – or is it more like the resort city it resembles? In reality it is very expensive to live in the city, putting it out of reach for many. New developments are required to pay into a social housing fund, but the housing can be built elsewhere. In Seattle, citizens tax themselves to build housing for homeless or very low-income people, and a good portion of that is in the central city. Market housing is usually too costly for workforce housing, however, and voluntary bonusing incentives for developers have yet to achieve the desired result.

In both cities, affordable rents for residents and the small businesses that add so much to the life of a street are mostly found in older buildings. When these are redeveloped, new wealthier tenants move in, and the new businesses are likely to be chain stores that can afford higher rents. The street environment may be newly landscaped and attractive, walkable and bikeable, with people sitting at sidewalk patios drinking lattes. This livable but somewhat sterile environment comes at the expense of a sometimes gritty but intrinsic vitality, an edgy, volatile crucible for creativity. Both cities rely on market forces to govern these things to a large extent, especially regarding small business. But like skylines, city policies reflect what is most important to their citizens (including commercial interests), and what they are willing to accept.

Vancouver vs Seattle
Vancouver citizens stopped highways and gained transit. Seattle citizens started a public market from a price revolt, and later fought commercial interests to save that market and its eclectic mix of small business and residents. In either city, what will be the trigger for the next big change?

image credits: Hong Kong, NYC, Seattle, Toronto, Paris, London