High buildings, skyline policy and the creation of a new urban landscapes

Can skyline and roofscape design policies help in the creation of new urban landscapes

I have often noticed, from photographs, that Sydney’s urban landscape looks all the better for the way in which high buildings are clustered in the central business district. If you took the tall buildings in the above photograph and distributed them evenly across the urban landscape, which is rather what London has done with its tall buildings, then you would get an effect like a suburban cemetery but on a larger scale. Or you could compare it to the mouth of a poor old tired horse with large gaps between the rotting teeth.
I think cities should group tall buildings with a view to creating scenic effects and beautifully dramatic skylines. One way of doing this is by drawing roofscape contour plans, in a similar manner to landform contour plans. One could say that it costs no more to group the buildings beautifully than to group them haphazardly, but the grouping would impact on the wishes and desires of individual landowners. So is the idea totally unbusinesslike and unrealistic? Or is it something that cities will need to do in a world when they are competing with each other to become destinations for businesses and tourists and residents?
Patrick Abercrombie drew some interesting diagrams so show the urban morphological choices which, in theory, face urban designers. Underneath his diagrams you can see my idea of what urban roofscape contours might look like – and would look like if someone applied the idea of roofscape mapping to Sydney’s central business district.

Above image courtesy Ingo Meironke Below image courtesy thewamphyri

12 thoughts on “High buildings, skyline policy and the creation of a new urban landscapes

  1. Tom Turner Post author

    I think Chinese cities are VERY much more in need of urban landscape-roofscape plans than Australian cities – but I am always a little reluctant to criticise China. The reasons for this may be (1) what China has achieved in the past 20 years is almost beyond belief (2) the Chinese government, and perhaps the Chinese people, do not like being criticised. Western politicians often go to China and complain about the human rights, Tibet etc etc and the Chinese government complains about this.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes. It should be one of the main objectives of urban design. I have added an aerial view of Shanghai to illustrate the way in which this has not been done in the past 25 years of Chinese urbanisation.

  3. Lawrence

    One of the most successful examples of high rise clustering that I have seen is in Doha. The central business district is viewed romantically from the – low rise – city across a bay and, importantly, the towers are spaced sufficiently far apart so that each building can be appreciated in its uniqueness, while contributing to the whole picture. I have searched in vain for the planning background to this, but it is so effective that I would not want to think that it is the product of mere chance.

    [ http://www.flickr.com/photos/ssychan/5140434261/ ]
    [ http://www.flickr.com/photos/maapu/2536233332/ ]

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    They are an interesting group of buildings in Doha but I think their attraction has more to do with the architecture and the contrast with the desert than with deliberate ‘composition’.

  5. Christine

    Yes, I think Tom is right, the colours of the setting are magic, very similar to Tropical Queensland. [ http://www.travelstories.com.au/images/to%20size/Point%20Ann_Fitzgerald%20%20River%20NP10.JPG ]

    The history of the settlement of Sydney has left a legacy of a high density CBD and a low density city. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geography_of_Sydney ] Acess to the high density city (where employment is concentrated from the low density suburbs) and reducing transit times due to overcongested roads and associated pollution is considered to be a difficult issue that Sydney needs to overcome as it continues to grow.
    [ http://www.thenewcityjournal.net/sydney_choking_in_its_own_density.htm ] Only New York has comparable commute times, and this is due to the slower public transport system rather than road transit.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      It would need a king or dictator to stipulate that CBDs should be high density for aesthetic reasons.
      From a traffic standpoint (pun intended) I think the best solution is to plan urbanisation like a snake’s skeleton. The spine should be a rapid transit system and the ribs should be green transport links (walkways, cycleways, solar-powered slow buses etc). In fact the spine could be a utilities corridor which space for: several rail lines, water, sewers, electricity, telecoms, road, cycleway, wildlife corridor etc. If this was done on a generous scale then it would be easy to upgrade the utilities as the urbanisation advanced. Also, there would be great opportunities for relating clusters of buildings to landscape opportunities. I recommend this policy to Chinese urban planners and landscape architects. It relates to Copenhagen’s Finger Plan but pays more attention to landscape, ecology, hydrology and non-mechanised green transport. The 1947 Copenhagen Five Finger Plan, like the London Green Belt plan, treated ‘greenspace’ as an end-in-itself, without giving it aesthetic, ecological or other roles which relate to the urban area which it delimits. The main function of the Copenhagen greenspace is to make a pretty picture.

  6. Christine

    In order to understand the transport system in Sydney (supply and demand side) a few documents might be necessary. For example the Draft Sydney Local Environment Plan 2011 (including land use matrixes) and a map of Sydney showing the landuses listed in the matrixes (perhaps the land application map).

    A good traffic engineer (ie Arups http://www.arup.com/Services/Infrastructure_Design.aspx ) would most probably assist with developing a comprehensive understanding of current useage and the implications of predictions to 2036 of changes in existing and intended residential and employment patterns.
    [ http://www.metroplansydney.nsw.gov.au/Home/MetropolitanPlanForSydney2036.aspx ]

    Although it is said that Sydney is walkable (re: distance) in reality parts of the city are not that pleasant to walk in ie. long streets, topography, poorly kept paving surfaces and sometimes merely not that pleasant (aesthetic). The good [ http://www.planeteyetraveler.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/hydepark.jpg ] and the bad [ http://www.sanddollies.com/4f91bf20.jpg ] and the ugly [ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-05-15/naked-streets-proposed-for-sydney-cbd/1683320 ].

    Good urban design combined with consideration of the subway system could (undoubtably) improve this situation.

    Perhaps the naked streets idea has some merit? [ http://watoday.drive.com.au/motor-news/naked-streets-considered-for-sydney-20090514-1496t.html ] Or perhaps it would result in both unhappy pedestrians and commuters? It would be useful to understand the similarlities and differences with places where this idea has already been implemented.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      City planners tend to regard automobile transport as being good for cities. I support Jane Jacobs call for “the attrition of automobiles by cities.” So I would also demote the role of transport and ‘hard infrastructure’ planners in the urbanisation process. They should sit ‘below the salt’, especially on coastal cities.

  7. Lawrence

    My point about Doha is that the CBD is low density for aesthetic reasons, and in the face of the usual commercial pressures generated by high land values that prevail in these areas, one really does need a king and a dictator – as is in Qatar more or less the case – to make this reality. Qatar’s CBD is unique in the Middle East and possibly the world, and it is encouraging to be able to refer to a positive example of Urban Planning in a part of the world where Urban Planning is often conspicuous by its absence. Qatar is developing at a rate faster than neighbouring Abu Dhabi, and one can see here [ http://www.gardenvisit.com/blog/2010/03/page/2/ ] what they have made of their CBD.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Qatar is my favourite Gulf state – because of Al Jazeera, which I now prefer to the BBC World Service for international news. It is less Eurocentric and they seem to have a wider range of specialist correspondents who are not professional broadcasters. Also, when I think about the long history of urban design it seems to me that most of the best results are associated with ideas that come from religious authorities or kings and queens. This is regrettable. My hope for the future is that landscape architects can be added to the list. The landscape (green) infrastructure should be planned before the physical infrastructure. Should IFLA give its attention to promoting this point it would justify its continued existence.


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