Public Comment

Human-Scale Smart Growth for Downtown

By Charles Siegel
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:20:00 PM

The extreme wing of Berkeley’s smart-growth movement is pushing hard for high-rises in downtown. 

I am a long-term smart-growth advocate. I have supported every mixed-use project built in Berkeley in recent decades. And I oppose these high-rises precisely because I think they would discredit smart growth. Instead, Berkeley should build human-scale smart growth, attractive enough to be a model for other cities. 

The recent study of downtown development found that it would be economically feasible to build condominiums seven stories or less or 17 stories or more. It also found that five-story rental housing is the lowest-cost and most feasible form of housing that can be built in downtown. 

We could create a downtown with a traditional European scale by building five-story rentals and seven-story condos on sites that are now under-used. This scale could give us a downtown as vital, as pedestrian-oriented, and as attractive as a traditional European city. 

American tourists flock to Europe because they enjoy the experience of walking on the streets and sitting in the cafes of this sort of human-scale neighborhoodca sign that it could be popular here in America. But tourists don’t seek out the experience of sitting in a cafes with high-rises looming over them. 

There are two reasons that most people do not like high-rise neighborhoods. 

First, high-rise neighborhoods seem cold and impersonal. The famous Danish urbanist Jan Gehl has produced a series of photographs showing that there is strong visual contact between people on the ground and people on the second floor or fifth floor of a building, weak visual contact between the ground and eight floor, and no visual contact at all between the ground and the sixteenth floor. 

That is why a street of high-rises feels sterile and faceless when you walk through it. It is literally true that you cannot see human faces or any other human details on the upper floors, so the building seems impersonal. 

Second, high-rise neighborhoods cannot have a meaningful skyline. Leon Krier and many New Urbanist designers have shown that traditional urban skylines are attractive because their “fabric buildings (utilitarian buildings, such as housing and offices) are limited in height, while important public buildings and symbolic structures rise above the urban fabric. 

That is why traditional European skylines are attractive, with the Cathedral and the Campanile rising above the urban fabric. It is why 19th century American skylines were attractive, with church spires rising above the urban fabric. 

Today, Washington, D.C. is the largest American city with this sort of traditional skyline, with the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument rising above the urban fabric—showing that this sort of urban design still can work in a contemporary American city.  

Berkeley is the second largest American city with this sort of traditional skyline, with the Campanile rising above a mid-rise campus and downtown. 

This skyline is part of John Galen Howard’s design for the Berkeley campus, and it is of national importance. Building high-rises in downtown Berkeley would be architectural vandalism, like building high-rises around the Capitol dome. 

The general public recognizes these points about urban design instinctively, though it cannot articulate them, so there will be fierce opposition to high-rise projects in downtown. 

Why is the city moving to support the most politically divisive projects we could possibly build in downtown, rather than creating broad consensus around a plan to make downtown more like a traditional European neighborhood? 

The first high-rise downtown could lead to a backlash against smart-growth like the backlash that followed construction of the Great Western Building on Center and Shattuck, which give Berkeley its NIMBY-dominated development politics of the 1970s and 1980s. 

But if we build five- and seven-story infill projects, we could make downtown a model imitated around the Bay Area and even around the nation. High-rises would give downtown a relatively small number of added residents, not enough to have any significant impact on global warming, and we could have a much greater impact by providing a model that others would imitate. 

If American suburbanites get the idea that smart growth means traditional, European-style neighborhoods, most will react by thinking: “That is the sort of place I would enjoy going to. I would like to see something like that in my town.” 

But if American suburbanites get the idea that smart growth means high-rises, most will react by thinking “That is just what I moved to the suburbs to get away from—overwhelming buildings that make you feel insignificant when you go past them. I want to keep that sort of thing as far away from me as possible. And I’m sure we can deal with global warming by buying electric cars.” 


Charles Siegel began advocating for smart growth in Berkeley before the term “smart growth” was invented.