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Architectus
505 George Street Sydney

Q & Architecture: urban planning for skinny skyscrapers

While we are all thinking about the many ways our cities will change, Architectus associate and strategic urban designer Oscar Stanish shares insights on the next generation of super skinny skyscrapers and how they will change cities as we know them.

 

Slender towers are on the rise in big cities partly due to land scarcity. How will skinny skyscrapers reshape the urban context?

The surge in slender towers comes from a couple of very different directions.

Firstly, there is a reaction in the design and planning worlds against some of what has been built over the last decade. In many places this has included bulky, unattractive towers which are uniform in scale, poor in design and overshadow public spaces. Urban centres can and should be much better environments than this. Often these poor outcomes are a result of our mid-century planning systems, which did not foresee the needs of future towers. A reliance on using height as the primary control to limit development may work for smaller buildings but makes for towers that are bulky and all the same height. Taller, more slender towers are usually more attractive. They reduce shadowing to streets and parks, and they make for better living environments with better light and ventilation. However, few places have the planning controls right yet.

Secondly, there is an economic side where sites that were previously considered ‘too small’ for tower developments are being reconsidered, particularly in central business district locations. New York has been leading this with a surge in very slim apartment towers that are fetching extraordinarily high prices on the property market. While these towers might be great for property developers, there are some concerns that if the buildings aren’t properly regulated, they will detract from the character of New York and cast shadows over Central Park and other spaces, as well having implications for affordability in these neighbourhoods. Again, the right planning system is needed to balance these different objectives fairly.

As well as New York, we should be looking to the experiences of cities across the world. There are examples of cities that have constructed these towers within pragmatic and socially cohesive frameworks. Singapore and Hong Kong have a strong history with towers; both cities are also strong on public social housing developments and integrating new developments with transport planning. Singapore takes the social planning and wellness outcomes of new communities very seriously. Vancouver is a western city that has led the westernised approach to embracing towers, looking for the right forms to encourage high amenity with density. European cities tend to focus more often on towers as unique objects with high quality design and have a lot to teach us in the integration of tall buildings with complex heritage constraints.

Australian cities have their strong points too. In Sydney, for instance, we have controls that restrict the height of buildings in the vicinity of our city parks to protect that precious window of lunchtime sunshine. Controls allow for development around this, which is something other cities struggle with. The Apartment Design Guide and similar guides in other states are of a very high standard internationally in ensuring amenity in residential apartments, even if they are far from perfect and do not deal with a lot of issues around towers.

Figure 1: Sydney residential tower, 505 George Street designed by Architectus and Ingenhoven Architects

Urban planning for skinny towers - 505 George Street.

Can you describe how the urban design team have applied some of these principles on a recent project?

There are several major projects where we are setting controls for the future of centres, including the Chatswood CBD Strategy and Parramatta City Centre Planning Framework. These strategies look to introduce a suite of controls that are targeted at improving amenity while allowing development to occur. A combination of floorplate restrictions, floor space ratio controls and solar access planes to key public space is typically needed to ensure our centres grow while continuing to be great public spaces with sun, air, diversity and interest, where development in sustainable locations is encouraged. However, the controls need to have an element of flexibility in how they are applied as views, sun and amenity can be very site specific.

Alongside this strategic work, on every individual site we work on we look to incorporate the same basic principles. We look at views and shadows – how we can maximise the amenity of both the development itself and the public domain and how we can best push the project and planning framework to achieve these.

Figure 2: Parramatta City Centre Planning Framework

Urban planning for skinny towers - Parramatta City Centre Planning Framework.

A repercussion of the rise of extremely tall and slender towers is that our cities’ capacity for workers, dwellers and tourists will increase. How will surrounding infrastructure change to accommodate this boom?

Our planning system is structured to deliver roads, pipes and wires. Generally, we do this quite well. Of course, we should not just be looking at hard infrastructure but considering more broadly what a city needs to work well.

In urban design terms, cities that work require a lot of soft infrastructure – great streets and great spaces. Plenty of cafes, restaurants, shops within and around buildings. Big open spaces, trees, areas for physical activity and places to sit throughout a city. Generous footpaths. New developments that add to the city through new public thoroughfares, laneways and open spaces. Social infrastructure such as libraries, community centres and swimming pools. Green infrastructure with plants growing along building facades, as well as green terraces and roofs. In our Chatswood CBD Strategy, we introduced a new control for the greening of building facades to prioritise this.

Recently there has been a push in New South Wales towards ‘Special Infrastructure Contributions’, ‘Value Capture’ and other related terms, which are about filling in many of the gaps not well captured under the current system. This has been complex and political, especially in locations where development expectations have already been set and property has already been bought and sold with an expectation of rezoned values. It is important that expectations for contributions are set alongside or before land is rezoned.

The other big issue is transport infrastructure. It is great to see in Sydney and Melbourne major city streets eliminating car lanes to make room for bike riders, trams and light rail. There are new train stations being built, new lines being added to existing networks. This is really a generational shift in thinking, even if we haven’t built everything we want yet.

In general, if the alternative is between outward growth and upward growth, upward growth in existing centres will be far cheaper to provide infrastructure for but work is still required before we get it right.

This is all indicative of the future that is increasingly upon us, in which our city populations increase significantly. A big part of urban design is trying to foresee these changes, imagine these future cities in the work we are doing now.

Figure 3: Chatswood CBD Strategy

Urban planning for skinny towers - Chatswood CBD Strategy.

Oscar Stanish is a strategic urban designer at Architectus with a background in architecture and planning.