This morning I came across this beautiful photo by @callicles of the 11th in Paris. After admiring it for a few moments, I then immediately tweeted it out with the above caption: “It’s okay to put buildings close together.” Because here’s the thing about this photo: It represents one of the great paradoxes of city building. When most people look at this photo, I suspect that they will find it beautiful. They will like the mid-rise architecture and they will like the quaint European-scaled streets. But despite its fairly universal appeal, very few cities are able to build this way today. It’s often not allowed. So instead what people do is travel to Europe in the summer, sit in cafes, admire the architecture and urban design, and then lament the fact that we don’t build cities like we used to.
What is it that makes this intersection so inviting? Well, the buildings are tight up against each other. I’m guessing that the right-of-ways (ROWs) in this picture are maybe 6-9 m wide. There are no building setbacks or stepbacks to speak of, save and except for the penthouse floors which taper back slightly. And so all of the spaces in these buildings would likely have some sort of direct facing condition with their opposing neighbors (but partially mitigated by the fact that these aren’t all glass buildings). The ratio of ROW to building height is, I’m guessing, something like 1:4, which, at the end of the day, is a large part of the reason why these streets feel so intimate and inviting. The buildings frame the streets and public realm.
What I just described breaks many of the guidelines that I suspect many of you in the industry are accustomed to following. In our world, the streets should be wider to allow for adequate fire and service vehicle access. The buildings should stepback to allow light to reach the sidewalks, to mitigate impacts on any surrounding single-family homes, and to provision for sky views. Here in Toronto, the midrise guidelines also stipulate that buildings should have a ROW to building height ratio that is closer to 1:1. Though to be fair this guidance is often rightly broken. But the truth remains, we generally don’t build like this anymore. Why is that?
It’s not because we can’t do it. We certainly could. We are, for whatever reasons, choosing not to. Is it because we’re bad at understanding what we actually like and what makes for great cities? Is it because what we end up liking is a bit counterintuitive? My unproven and untested theory is that it is at least partially the result of an approach to planning that is defensive — instead of offensive — in nature. We plan around and bow completely to existing contexts. We plan to mitigate impacts. We plan to satisfy some very individualistic concerns about how cities and neighborhoods should be built. For better or for worse, we plan to piss off the least amount of people. Politics also play an outsized role.
What is far less common to think about is how to plan offensively. The fact of the matter is that the Paris we all love today pissed off a lot of people when it was being constructed. The approach was top-down and hugely disruptive. It ignored and completely erased much of the city’s previous urban context. Artists at the time, and probably many others, despised the new regularity of Paris’ street wall buildings. They longed for the old hodgepodge of medieval blocks and the visual variety that they created. But today, it’s hard not to think of this offensive move as anything but visionary. Of course, there are also countless examples of top-down offenses turning out terribly bad for cities.
Perhaps the right approach, then, is to simply start being more deliberate about introducing elements of planning offense. My friend David Wex of Urban Capital likes to remind me that Montreal is a city with grandeur and that Toronto, for the most part, is a city without it. So as I have argued before, over here, I think it’s time we rethink our approach. Instead of just worrying about things like shadow impacts and angular planes (defensive), we should also be asking ourselves offensive questions. How refreshing would it be to sit down in a project meeting and have someone ask: “Okay, but does this design contribute to the overall grandeur and beauty of our city?”
And maybe once we take this new perspective, we’ll come to the conclusion that sometimes it’s okay to put buildings close together.