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Of Parks, Podiums and Penumbras: How Density Changes Development

Cities that increase density by building skywards can inadvertently end up with impersonal streetscapes defined by monotonous walls of glass and concrete. Toronto has avoided the issue of dark, canyon-like streetscapes by mandating that buildings offer a human-scale street presence. Most large buildings are composed of a “podium” base, with towers receding from the street in steps as they grow upwards, allowing sunlight to filter through. But one developer, Brad Lamb, is tired of the monotonous wedding-cake aesthetic caused by codes that encourage “podiumism.”

He sees parks as a way to increase density without sacrificing beauty and creativity. This is a somewhat of a twist on the usual tension between density and open space, in which cities have to force developers to include parks as an offset to residential and commercial projects (in a future article, we’ll discuss Seattle’s Green Factor codes, which require new developments in dense areas to provide publicly accessible and visible landscaping).

In Toronto, Lamb wants to build a slender 47-story residential tower and replace the podium space of other towers with a tiny park (the entire lot is only 62 by 200 feet). The building is between two historic buildings and the park would feature a lawn, benches, and a fountain.

His plans, though, face some opposition from city planners. This is certainly not the first time that open space and density have struggled to coexist.

Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco. Credit: Kenneth Lu (Flickr Feed)

San Francisco’s Proposition K, otherwise known as the Sunlight Ordinance, was the source of a recent clash between parks advocates and proponents of dense, transit-oriented city living. Passed in 1984, the ordinance bans the development of any building over forty feet that would cast a shadow on an existing park.

The Sunlight Ordinance halted the development of a group of residential towers, part of the high-profile remake of the Transbay Transit Center, when it was discovered that two of the towers would cast a shadow on nearby parks. The shadows would have fallen on St. Mary’s and Portsmouth Squares for an hour a day in the spring and fall, and on Justin Herman Plaza for an hour around lunchtime in the middle of winter.

The project, designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, eventually got the go-ahead, in part because developers agreed to pay $10 million for park improvements and to offset the impact of the shadows by building a 5.4-acre rooftop park over the transit center.  The park, which according to this video has the potential to match the grandeur of Chicago’s Millennium Park, will feature an open air amphitheatre, gardens, a trail for running and walking, open grass areas for picnics, lily ponds and more.

It will also provide significant environmental benefits by minimizing the heat island effect, regulating interior temperatures, and absorbing and filtering pollutants rising from the terminal, which will connect 11 regional transit systems and accommodate 100,000 passengers each day.

With more people yearning to move into cities, it is critical to ensure that densification and parks are mutually reinforcing. And in the end, there is no reason why they should not be: people in dense areas need nearby parks for health and relaxation, and parks benefit from a lively atmosphere that comes from being close to homes, shops, transit and workplaces. With the recent success of Chicago’s Millennium Park and New York’s High Line, cities such as Los Angeles , Seattle and San Diego are recognizing the potential of elevated parks to encourage density while also generating excitement and boosting livability.

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2 Responses

  1. Developer contributions toward park upgrades and new parks is a much better way to go. Podium after podium creates a rather oppressive design monotony, and the private parkettes and mini-plazas nested in between podium clusters represent some of Toronto’s least productive real estate (they’re used mainly be lunchtime smokers). In contrast, the parks that were here a century or more ago are still the parks most people use, and Toronto fortunately has many of these. Forcing a miniature park at every building entrance is rather absurd.

  2. [...] Of Parks, Podiums and Penumbras: How Density Changes Development [City Parks [...]

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