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Scandinavia to DAPAC: Low Is Beautiful

By Michael Katz
Tuesday November 06, 2007

As Berkeley’s downtown planning panel faces its Wednesday deadline to make, break, or abandon a compromise on raising buildings’ height limits, it might want to look to the decisions of those who’ve considered the issue a bit longer.  

The Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee’s (DAPAC) volunteer members have worked hard for two years in attempts to frame a better downtown. But whether fairly or not, the people who built Scandinavia’s most famous cities had up to a 950-year head start on DAPAC. And up to an 800-year lead on Berkeley’s initial settlement. What did they do with that advantage?  

As I learned last summer, visiting Scandinavian cities like Stockholm and Copenhagen (Denmark) is like a trip to an alternate future. These capitals have virtually no skyscrapers anywhere near their centers. 

There, as in other Scandinavian cities, you’ll hear the same story: Some institution built one slightly tall building, and everyone felt it had overshadowed historic landmarks and compromised the city’s core. So they didn’t make that mistake again.  

Here in Berkeley, Mayor Bates and planning staff keep pressing DAPAC members to approve 16-story downtown “point towers.” But Scandinavia’s city dwellers consciously chose to let other kinds of points dominate their skylines: historic church and city-hall spires that are high points of civic pride.  

In Berkeley terms, the equivalent would be deciding to keep buildings low enough to preserve views of the Campanile, our own City Hall, the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the hills. 

What Scandinavia has achieved is cities of moderate density and wonderful human scale—places where you’ll find a great balance of vitality and civility. You can see hints of this in my fragmentary snapshots here. But for more panoramic cityscape views, do a Google image search for “Stockholm,” “Copenhagen,” or Norway’s Berkeley-scale “Bergen.” 

Stockholm, in particular, is probably the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen. (And I speak here as a fierce Bay Area partisan.) It forges its civic identity out of several distinct islands, each recalling a different model European city.  

In all, Stockholm’s skyline looks a lot like the 1940s San Francisco that Herb Caen (and many others) lamented losing to skyscrapers. Yet Stockholm does achieve density—not through soaring towers, but through a graceful fabric of five- to seven-story buildings.  

Those heights fit conveniently within Berkeley’s existing 1990 Downtown Plan zoning. In fact, Berkeley can readily meet its regionally assigned housing targets within this current envelope, according to DAPAC and Planning commissioner Gene Poschman—our city’s spry eminence grise when it comes to planning as if people mattered.  

Stockholm is the alternate future that Poschman is talking about. It’s also the future pointed to by the overwhelming majority of speakers who opposed “point towers” at DAPAC’s Oct. 20 public workshop.  

It’s important that Scandinavian capitals aren’t living museums preserved by tourism, like Florence or Venice. They’re real, living big cities—vital political and trade centers. And they do have some tall buildings and other structures (like TV towers), if you look hard enough. But by design, these are located nowhere near these cities’ cores.  

Mayor Bates and some DAPAC appointees are advocating higher downtown buildings in the sincere hope of expanding housing access and moderating the city’s environmental footprint. But Scandinavia’s low-rise-by-choice countries are hardly slackers on either front.  

By almost any indicator, Scandinavia leads the world in promoting broad prosperity and bridging social inequality. Scandinavian countries routinely top international rankings of overall “quality of life” and residents’ self-reported happiness.  

Sweden, already committed to weaning itself off nuclear power, has set a national goal of becoming oil-free by 2020. Stockholm seems to be every planning scholar’s model of an energy-efficient, “green” city. One-third of its area is parkland, reportedly the highest ratio in Europe.  

Off Copenhagen’s waterfront (as in many other places in Denmark), you’ll see tall wind turbines proudly deployed to generate clean electricity. And Scandinavian cities offer swift, frequent, and integrated public-transit service that makes AC Transit’s and BART’s slow-motion competition look like the relic of a bygone century.  

Back in Berkeley, whatever DAPAC recommends must still run a gantlet of Planning Commission and City Council approval—followed by possible litigation and ballot referendums. There’s a real chance of seeing two years of work overturned.  

One frustrated insider told me that DAPAC’s whole administrative budget might have been better spent on giving commissioners and staff a concise “Grand Tour” of European cities that long ago solved Berkeley’s dilemmas, then just turning them loose to write.  

So in its contentious debate over building heights, perhaps DAPAC should just renew the five- to eight-story guidelines from 1990’s Downtown Plan. DAPAC could declare that these limits still basically serve community sentiment and goals for another 20 years. This would put the new panel’s imprimatur on a living document that emerged from a robust, open and participative, process.  

Almost no one dislikes the 1990 plan. Unless, that is, they sit very high up—like in the mayor’s office, or top UC administrative offices, or the leafy Piedmont aeries where major developers tend to live. 

Can we all get along? It was cooperative, consensus-based Scandinavia that also originated the “ombudsman” name and concept, more than 450 years ago. UC maintains an ombuds office, and the city eagerly subsidizes a “mediation” service that serves the same end.  

Can we agree on five to eight? 


Michael Katz is a Berkeley resident.