Is big really better?

The Advertiser has published an article by Kevin O’Leary outlining the problems with the Government’s push for tall apartment buildings:

Kevin O’Leary: Adelaide’s tower building frenzy flies in face of creating a green, more liveable city

January 14, 2016 KEVIN O’LEARY The Advertiser

OVER the past 12 months, in what it sees as a measure to curb urban sprawl, the Government has been aggressively pursuing the development of tall apartment towers over a wide range of locations in Adelaide.

This includes extensive areas of the city centre, high streets, major arterial roads with high traffic volumes, major truck freight routes and urban renewal areas.

A number of the developments approved are seriously at variance with council development plans, so it’s no wonder that in its new Planning Bill before Parliament the SA Government has scrapped the “seriously at variance” clause.

This action, of course, will not only make development plans redundant. It makes the Government’s new Planning Bill — which only allows the general public to have a say in policy formulation but not development assessment — even less palatable.

Effectively, in encouraging approval of these towers, the Government has been thumbing its nose at quite a range of policies in its 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide and council development plans, including those intended to achieve more sustainable development, preserve streetscapes or local heritage, and ensure a proper interface between tall buildings and residential areas.

The Government’s actions also run counter to the opinions of experts worldwide who maintain that tall towers seriously undermine the livability and ecologically sustainability of our cities.

Susanne Crowshurt of the International Making Cities Liveable Council claims that the higher a building goes the a greater risk that local neighbourhood economies will be adversely affected because they are more likely to become expensive units purchased by global investors.

“These global investors rarely visit their condos, reducing the local population actually living in the area, jeopardising the economic viability of businesses in the locality”, she argues. “Wherever housing is treated primarily as an investment, as in China and London, the bubbles created eventually burst”.

Crowhurst also maintains that these towers drive out affordable housing. Alternatively, small- footprint shops and apartments in a fine-textured urban fabric yield smaller profits spread out among many individuals and businesses in the community.

Michael Buxton, Professor of Environment and Planning at RMIT University in Melbourne, argues that high-rise apartments separate people from local environment. ‘‘What high rise does is separate large numbers of people from the street so that we end up with a city that is detached from street life, we end up with a city that is based on enclaves and gated communities’’.

Danish architect Jan Gehl is concerned about the lack a human scale with tower apartments. After extensive study of how humans behave in different environments, he has concluded that the most comfortable building height for urban pedestrians is no higher than five storeys.

Taz Loomans, urban planner and writer from Portland in the US state of Oregon, believes that they reduce chance encounters and the physical or psychological closeness between people “because they separate people from the street and each other”. He says these chance encounters ‘‘are crucial to the city and to creating social capital’’.

Canadian urban planning expert from University of British Columbia, Patrick Condon, maintains that they equate to vertical urban sprawl. ‘‘High-rise apartments deliver the same isolation seen in suburban sprawl”, he maintains.

Although there’s a common perception that tall buildings must be green because they accommodate higher densities, they are extremely inefficient. World-renowned skyscraper architect, Ken Yeang, believes that city towers are one of the most unecological building types because of all the energy and materials used to build and operate them. ‘‘We shouldn’t build skyscrapers unless we have to:, he asserts. ‘‘But those we do build are going to be with us for some while, and we must make them as green as we can”.

Although he maintains that buildings such as the Bank of America tower in Manhattan (which has won the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design award) are good as far as skyscrapers go, they are buildings with ‘‘environmental add ons’’ and what you should be considering is “a simpler form of building in the first place (as) skyscrapers can never achieve true sustainability’’.

Ideally, if the SA Government were serious about developing a carbon neutral and more liveable city, it should pare back the number of tall towers it is encouraging in the city and at least stop their development in inappropriate locations.

This includes along high streets, in historic precincts, adjoining residential areas where they will have an adverse impact, and along major arterial roads where there will be significant health risks to their future residents.

The Government’s current tower-building frenzy flies in the face of concerns raised in the 30-Year Plan ‘‘that buildings represent the single biggest opportunity for greenhouse gas emission abatement, exceeding the energy, transport and industry sectors combined’’.

Kevin O’Leary is an Adelaide-based urban planning expert.

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