Monday, July 11, 2005

High Rise Suburbia

When most people contemplate suburbia the images that often come to mind are endless arrays of single family houses, disconnected strip commercial stores and office parks. Most—if not all—structures are two to four stories at most, with only the occasional ten story office building or communication antenna sticking out into the sky. What does not immediately come to mind as “suburbia” are rows of 20 story condo complexes, office towers and multi-level hotel/shopping/entertainment centers. Yet these high-intensity urban structures are scattered about in a suburban pattern around many of our larger (more urban) cities.
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A good example of this would be Landmark, VA. Located on the western boundary of the City of Alexandria and unincorporated Fairfax County, this area contains numerous high rise apartments, condominiums, and office towers spread across the moderately rolling terrain typical of this part of the Mid-Atlantic. Interspersed between the buildings is a range of greenery from grassy fields to overgrown woods. Connecting all of these buildings is a network of curvilinear collectors and arterial streets of varying widths.
Developments in this form of suburbia differ from their more conventional low-intensity counterparts in many respects except for two: they retain a marketing-driven “unique” identity and are (almost) totally dependent on automobile-based transportation. They are essentially suburbs on steroids. An examination of one such development yields a lot of valuable information.
The largest residential complex in the above aerial is the Watergate at the Landmark (the four bent shaped buildings in the center). This complex houses 1,460 units in 18-story buildings spread over a number of acres. As is the case with most things in this country, marketing is everything. This place bills itself as “Condominium Living in a Resort setting” and along with this list of amenities gives this contradictory-sounding description of itself:
…Watergate is away from it all but in the middle of it all. Located in historic
Alexandria, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C, it is 5
miles from The Pentagon and 7 miles from Reagan National Airport. The Washington Beltway is 10 minutes away and a million miles from megalopolis.
It should be mentioned while the complex itself IS located within the City of Alexandria, it is nowhere near (in geographical or architectural terms) to the “historic” core of the city. Additionally, that 10 minute travel time does not apply to rush hour periods, which in the Metropolitan DC area can run most of the day.
It is this continued dependence on automotive transport that is the real problem with this and countless other forms of high-rise suburban buildings. Whether they are located outside of Washington DC, Houston TX, Chicago IL, or Los Angeles CA, these complexes (or communities as many would like to call themselves) are functionally no different than their earthbound counterparts. Despite their intensive use of the land, these multi-story structures still are too spread out from each other to permit easy walking. To walk out to the closest street often requires crossing parking and taking a winding route to whatever the arterial the complex dumps out on.
Though many of these complexes have very old and very young inhabitants, the bulk of the residents are usually young and employed. A vast majority of these individuals drive to work. And why shouldn’t they? Their place of employment is more often than not, another office tower in another suburb/edge city, an office park near a major interchange or in the rare case, actually located in the CBD. Transit is inconvenient at best and non-existent at worst. As a consequence, most complexes have several acres dedicated to parking, either in lots or underground in garages.

Despite the apparent density, the car is still king of this kind of suburbia.
This type of urbanization makes economic sense. It packs a large amount of square footage that could be sold or leased into a relatively small area, but yet allows the developer to market the project as a unique entity, a choice destination if you will. Whether residential complex is geared to the D.I.N.K (dual income no kids) crowd or “active seniors”, the effect is the same. Housing is no longer just functional—it is “fun”. On the commercial side, you will see ordinary malls morph into entertainment centers, complete with office towers, hotels and 18 screen-megaplexes plopped onto the property. Below an example of this, the Sherman Oaks Galleria.

More often than not, the lands near major highways (for easy access) will see this form of development, which typically occurs after the lower density suburban uses have already built out. With the Landmark area, the close proximity of I-95 and the Capital Beltway was the key to its success.
These high rise agglomerations can take on their own city-like collective identity, which Joel Garreau coined as an “edge city” in his 1991 book of the same title. This form of high rise suburbia, taken to an extreme, is best exemplified by places like Tysons Corner (VA), Rosemont and Schamburg (both in IL), Century City (actually part of Los Angeles), or University Town Center (part of San Diego). These places are bonefide centers of activity, hugely important to the business world and in many cases, home to thousands of people. Yet despite their vying for importance against their urban core counterparts, almost none are walkable. Tysons Corner (pictured below) has the second largest amount of leasable commercial space outside of Manhattan on the east coast, yet has no rail service whatsoever. Rosemont is home to dozens of hotels and an entertainment complex, yet is served by a single, meager ‘L’ station that is surrounded by acres of park and ride lots. Whatever does pass for “planning” typically occurs well after the congestion has reached a crisis point.

This brings me to my next point. While high density suburbia makes economic sense, from an energy standpoint it is just plain nonsense.
Suburban existence and its absolute dependence on the automobile will be doomed to failure as it becomes increasingly difficult to keep all of those cars gassed up and moving and the trucks delivering goods for eventual sale and consumption. While many of these complexes do have rudimentary bus service out front, it is of no use to a majority of the inhabitants who must travel to locations not serviced by transit. But the issue of transportation is not the only one to challenge the inhabitants. The energetic requirements to sustain the buildings themselves are a huge undertaking.
A twenty story building has many energetic requirements, many of which are not an issue with your average single family house. Water must be pumped up, wastes pumped out. People and freight are almost dependant on the use of elevators to speed themselves between the floors. The heating and cooling needs of these buildings are of a scale unto themselves, when compared to single family homes. Then throw in the thousands of common area light bulbs, domestic hot water, cooking and laundry facilities and you have a structure that consumes a lot of energy to simply be inhabitable. Most condo complexes are not content to offer just the basics however. As a result more energy is required to keep up the grounds, maintain the pool (or pools), power the management office and the amenities rooms and keep up the 24-hour security detail.
It is difficult to truly compare whether a complex such as the Watergate at the Landmark’s 1,460 units are more or less energy efficient than the same number of units scattered across low-density suburbia. Without hard figures, such as complex electricity or gas bill, a true comparison cannot be easily made. One could surmise the individual heating or cooling needs for each unit might less, due to less exposed surface area. On the other hand, no two story house requires elevator service or pumped water to be inhabitable.
One thing is for sure; as the multiple energy crises (oil, gas and electricity) of the twenty-first century materialize, life in high rise suburbia will become every bit as difficult as low rise suburbia. But with developing scarcity of each particular form of energy a likelihood, a different pitfall for these communities awaits.
Peak oil robs high rise suburbia of its economic vitality by disrupting the ease of movement of its inhabitants and workers. As gasoline and diesel prices climb out of site, commuting no longer becomes affordable for the masses, which assumes that many still had jobs to commute to in the first place. The inevitable downturn in the economy will waylay thousands of companies, particularly those firms that are not considered essential to everyday existence. In the early months to years, high rise condo inhabitants may fare somewhat better than their lower density counterparts. At least most residents still have public transit options in these (as paltry as it may be) which could be utilized more easily than the suburbanite that must walk a mile and half to the nearest arterial run. However as the crisis persists, these towers will become increasingly full of the unemployed and discontented. As we shall soon discover, they will soon be uncomfortable as well.
The declining natural gas situation and for many in this country, the eventual electrical shortages, pose far greater direct impacts to condo and office towers than oil does. Natural gas supplies heat to many complexes, heat that is used to provide domestic hot water, winter time heating and in some cases, electricity (via a cogen unit). Even if the complex uses no gas, it will use electricity. Electricity is an absolute must for these structures as it provides the necessary energy to pump water and propel people to those upper floors while keeping them cool in the summer keep them lit and entertained all year long. With natural gas fired units falling by the wayside and coal and nuclear unable to fill the gap (coal, despite its abundance is facing some capacity increasing limitations of its own) there is some serious question on whether the grid operators can continue to keep the lights on for the expected lifespan of some of these buildings. While a grid collapse is not likely in the next several years, it is very much plausible to expect it during most of our lifetimes.
One example of doomed experimentation with high rise living was the experience of North Korea. As many already know, they suffered an artificial peak oil of sorts after the fall of the Soviet Union. Without access to cheap crude, their economy shriveled up. Eventually the shortages cascaded into coal shortages and food shortage resulting in mass famine and frequent black outs. An article in the LA Times detailed life in a northern city of 600,000. A passage referred to an 18 story building like this:

There are other oddities. The upper floors of an 18-story apartment building
along the main boulevard are unoccupied because there are no elevators
Unless we can either develop a new, limitless form of energy or figure out how to more equitably ration what’s left, the coming crisis will eviscerate the justification for high rise suburbia, while leaving the inhabitants, particularly in the upper floors, just out of reach of sustainability. In the end, human history has no parallel to high density suburbia. In fact we do not have a parallel to the suburbia period itself as this has been the only time to date where mankind has existed in a period of ever increasing energy availability.
Unfortunately for us, those days are numbered.
Will this be the future of our high rises?
Author's addendum:
I added some links above to additional information of merit to this article. Here are a few others of merit:
* Community Association Publishing - This magazine is geared to condo complex owners. The sub-page I linked to deals specifically with energy. Most articles are informative, even if they were written without a full grasp of the energy situation.
* Tysons Corner Planning Page - This page from the County of Fairfax (the jurisdiction for responsible for its planning and administration) discusses planning efforts to turn Tysons Corner from a high rise suburban edge city into a true downtown. While this effort will likely never come to fruition (due to both local opposition and the looming energy crisis). Too bad something like this was not built sooner.
On a related note, here is someone else's rant on high density suburbia.


Blogger Liz Logan said...

Thanks for the great coverage. As always, I learned a lot.

7/13/2005 11:57 AM  
Blogger The Sampo said...

excellent essay. I have friends who live in alexandria and every time i visit i am totally astonished by the amazing amount of people there. Go into any reasonably tall building and look out the window and what you see is 4 story condos as far as the eye can see dotted with the occasional 20 story monster. I briefly considered moving there for a pay increase, but after visiting i decided that 25% was not nearly enough to get me to go into that sucking chestwound of a city.

the things we take so much for granted are going to be the very things that undo it all...who would have thought that the electricity to pump the water out your tap would suddenly need to be diverted for something more important...indeed

7/13/2005 3:52 PM  
Blogger dinopello said...

The old town of Alexandria, originally surveyed by a young George Washington is one of the nicest places in the US in my opinion. And, its a real town where people live, work, shop and play, its not just a historic artifact. 'Landmark', 'Tysons' and some of the other 'modernist' junk heaps with other names like 'Skyline' in the surrounding areas are awful. But Old Town should be a model in many ways.

The Project for Public Places has a few pictures:

7/16/2005 7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lots of articles have been written about the car-dependence of suburbia, and thus the issues it will have during Peak Oil.

However, it seems that even in the Peak Oil community, an alternative view has arisen. And remember, this alternative view did not arise in the eyes of progressive techno-optimists. This view was arisen in the minds of people who agree with everything we have said about peak oil, but still have a differing opinion about the fate of the suburbs.

The two people who started this view are Robert Forrester and David Holmgren. Forrester, like you, has written a plan in which to take a big-box mall and retrofit it into a greenhouse. He also proposed converting the grass fields of "boulevards" and cultivating them as well.

Holmgren, a permaculture activist, points out that the unused land occupied to lawns and open fields in suburbs (I have visited suburbs with huge open grassy fields in schoolyards and other businesses) can be used to cultivate food.

Obviously, cultivating food requires that the people in the suburbs are willing to feed themselves (and such ignorance is everywhere, even in rural and small-town America.)

In a trip through rural America, after all, I realized that many rural areas are just as dependent on the "non-renewable infrastructure" as urban people are. When passing through small towns in various states, it was evident their food was transported long distances, as this was through the Midwest and the farms consisted of nothing but corn and soybeans.

9/13/2005 6:41 AM  

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