This article is the first in a three part series exploring the debate on height limits and zoning designed to limit density in development.

Manhattan Skyline viewed from Central Park

Manhattan Skyline viewed from Central Park

Growing up, my brother and I were often tossed in the back of the car for family road trips. As we bounced along the interstate, my sense of adventure would inevitably fade as the monotony of driving long distance set in. I would count the miles until the countryside finally sprouted suburban sprawl that grew into a dense central city. I imagined the lives of the commuters around us in traffic and strained to see the city’s skyline as we passed through. It was how I compared one city to another and my method was simple: the taller, the better.

A correlation between a city’s success and its skyline seemed natural. Tall skylines prompted awe and provided postcard impressions as we passed through places I had never seen and would likely never return to. As I grew, my love of an impressive skyline continued to color my perception of cities and – more often than not – I embraced the taller-is-better ethos of those cross country trips. Likewise, the size and height of downtown Detroit played a prominent role in how I measured the success of my hometown and compared it to other cities.

Then I went to Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong, I get it. The density of Manhattan is what makes it such an exciting place. I loved my trip and I hope to return as often as possible. However, walking in the shadow of so many tall buildings was a bit overwhelming. The city eventually seemed a constant blur of metal and concrete. It could be claustrophobic and I eventually found myself lingering in the meadows of Central Park, sitting on the grass, feeling very much the country bumpkin.

I don’t want to single out Manhattan. I have felt a similar unease in the heart of downtown Chicago; especially in the winter, when the sun hangs low and sets early. And I am not alone in my trepidation towards unregulated growth and the ideal of ever taller cities. Congress passed The Height of Buildings Act in 1910, limiting the height of buildings in Washington, DC to 90 feet on residential streets, 130 feet on commercial streets and 160 feet on a section of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Photo by John Cruz

US Capital Building in Washington, DC

This ensured the prominence of the Washington Monument and the United States Capital Building. It also enforced a vision of a city where, as Phillip Kennicott eloquently wrote in the Washington Post, buildings are “planted grandly and serenely in the democratic landscape rather than striving for prominence in the Darwinian forest of commercial skyscrapers.”

Paris, France is also well known for its suspicion of unbridled growth, especially after the construction of the Tour Montparnasse. At nearly 700 feet tall, it prompted outrage and a city wide restriction on tall buildings in 1977. Paris has since eased its height restrictions and recently allowed buildings of up to 590 feet. Feargus O’Sullivan noted in the Atlantic that “all of the new towers still remain on the fringes of the historic center,” but warned that inevitably “sight lines to the Eiffel Tower and other monuments will be affected in some areas.”

Many Canadian cities have similar restrictions to ensure that downtown landmarks and views of natural beauty are protected as well. Vancouverites can tell you about the “cleavage” of their city, referring to the policies that preserve the view so people can look between buildings and see the mountains. In Montreal, height restrictions prevent buildings from being built above 200 meters to protect the view of Mt. Royal.

The construction of the Grand Bali Beach Hotel sparked concerns that future development would overshadow the city’s Balinese Hindu temple and a restriction limiting buildings in Bali to 15 meters (just shy of 50 feet); the average height of a palm tree. That seems extreme, especially in a city with a population of over 4 million people. However, the idea of a city where the sky is limitless is equally drastic.

The next two articles in this series will explore the debate on height restrictions; taking a look at the pros and cons of regulations designed to limit height and density in cities. In the meantime, I am curious to hear what you all think.

  • Carrie

    Great job. I am also guilty of judging a city by it’s skyline. It’s hard to ignore its beauty on a postcard. I think tall/bigger is better is very American and part of the beauty of our relatively young cities. I’m glad Europeans (and even our Congress) appreciate the value of historic landmarks and put the visibility of meaningful structures above the inevitable profit from building up.