The “Towers vs Mid-Rise” debate continues in London

Michael Mortensen, MA MCIP, RPP – a Vancouver Developer & Planner abroad |

“We are concerned about the immediate social and environmental impacts of very dense developments and their long-term sustainability. We also observe that this new superdensity – which we’ve dubbed hyperdensity when it’s over 350 homes or dwellings per hectare – derives, not from London’s distinctive and popular urban forms, but from global development patterns. We may well ask, is London becoming a victim of its own success, meeting demand by sacrificing the very distinctiveness which makes people want to live and work here?”
Superdensity The Sequel

I found this publication and thought it would be of interest to the current debates in Vancouver.
I think urban designers, citizens and city builders – like good artists – need a full range of colours on their palettes, and it is great to get perspectives from other places. London holds many good examples of high-density mid-rise buildings that we can take as inspiration for areas of Vancouver that can accommodate more housing, shops and amenities, but perhaps are not suitable for tower forms.
London also has cautionary examples of poor mid-rise design – what NOT to do – and I am thinking here of that city’s brutalist post-war super-blocks, and even some modern mid-rise buildings that do not really work well at the street level. I’ll perhaps do a little photo essay on that later.
Personally, I am not binary on the issue of high or mid-rise density. Londoners do not share our interests in ocean and mountain views, and they are quite comfortable squeezing buildings close together on narrow streets here in the UK – closer than we would in Vancouver. I also think Vancouver designers do high-rise development very well and I know from personal experience that you can create very happy communities in vertical living arrangements. London can learn a lot from Vancouver on how we tamed high rise buildings – ironically borrowing Georgian Townhouse typologies to create the lovely bases for our now famous “point tower on podium” form.
I know some of the principal architects at PTEA, HTA, and Levitt Bernstein here in London and I really like their work and that of PRP. Their joint publication below highlights some of the best in current Mid-Rise design in London from each their practices. Hope you enjoy perusing its pages.


  1. Our love for high-rises is indeed somewhat strange. Europe has achieved the same density per block ( or acre) with mid-rises to the sidewalk with no front or side-setbacks that we should consider in some streets.
    Keep in mind that Europe’s city layout started 1000+ years ago, well before the car and secondly, well before the invention and use of elevators in the 1860s.
    We can indeed learn from European cities such as London how to build – or re-build – affordable, walkable and attractive cities.

  2. Thanks Thomas,
    A couple observations – the great attraction and density of European cities at the 6 to 8 storey building height datum is due to the consistency of that form of development over large areas. To your point, it is indeed unlikely that we’ll get that in our 130-year-young city.
    People in Vancouver value highly their leafy, treed streets and landscaped setbacks. That applies to our streetcar suburbs (thinking of Cypress and 13th framed by Craftsman homes and the odd coach house infill dwelling here and there) AND also to our high density downtown neighbourhoods (thinking of 1200 block of Alberni framed by townhouse podiums and 30 storey towers). The green edge takes the edge off high density development and it remains very important to us ‘homo sapiens sapiens’. I think most Vancouverites would find zero setback development pretty foreign and hard on the senses.
    Having lived in a few towers in Vancouver, I have to say I quite enjoyed them – with views of the water and mountains and the city scene below. I also found and cultivated a great and diverse community in my high rise homes in Vancouver, counting a couple of rock stars and a few great concierges amongst my neighbour-friends.
    What is interesting to me is that most European cities can’t replicate the MOST beautiful mid-rise forms because of building codes etc. The best ones (thinking of the Georgian streets in Mayfair or Belgravia in London) have the first floor elevated by about a metre from the street to gain a bit of privacy for the homo sapiens sapiens who live in side (taking the anthropological perspective, primates don’t like it when other animals can see directly into their nests). New midrise buildings generally drop the first floor level to the outside grade – this for me is one of the most disappointing features of new mid-rise design in the UK and elsewhere (that and the often great expanses of blank walls and gates, and undercroft parking, and the omnipresent wheelie bins for waste and recycling).
    What’s are the nicest mid-rise buildings in Vancouver these days?

    1. I question some of this. I won’t argue what people value highly. But I think Homo-sapiens are not well served when the green edge of “sanitized nature” further diminished by being in the private realm.
      In Europe, zero front yards leave less room for green (although they often still have street trees). Instead they have regular public squares, plazas and mini-parks to add green space and enable socialization for our social species. Our front yards are just more of the “king-of-the-castle” attitude that so alienates “the other” and leads to more people staying at home, hoarding their possessions and plugging into electronic devices like zombies. As a result of the “white picket fence” ideal we’ve forgone regular neighbourhood squares and given over most of our public realm to the automobile.
      I’m not saying there is any single right answer – variety and choice is always better. But we have far far too much leafy green streetscapes and far far too little life. And that format sprawls over the real nature that homo-sapiens would truly benefit from having closer access to.

      1. Ron, I agree. I find our wide streets barren and our relentless green space and setbacks alienating. Camillo Sitte wrote about the importance of having spaces that are human scale, with buildings proportional to the streets they bound. That is simply not possible for many of our streets, the space between buildings is so great.
        My neighbourhood, Brentwood Park (probably 90+% 50s bungalows on 6,000+ sqft lots) is a good example. We moved here for the train and nearby commercial areas, but I would happily trade our huge lawn for some decent public spaces. (To be fair, the City plans to improve the park.) Though I’d be happy to see my neighbourhood change, such places don’t concern me too much; different people have different tastes and diversity is good.
        More worrisome to me is the huge amount of waste green and concrete space around large-scale new development. When I lived in a tower near Lougheed Mall the surrounding bushes and walkways felt more like places to be mugged than places to spend time. Not that there was crime in them – no-one ever used them in the first place. Their sole function seemed to be to make distances greater. In other towers I have lived in, greenspace has been seriously under-used. It seems to be designed to be looked at, not inhabited.
        In commercial areas, active sidewalks beat landscaping that creates voids in the streetscape. Burnaby’s new standard for town centre sidewalks, with separated bike paths and two vegetation zones, sounds great in principle. They consist of a wide sidewalk, with space for cafe seating or what have you, a vegetation zone for run-off complete with benches, a separated bicycle path, and a line of trees to create separation from automobile traffic. Maybe they will turn out to be wonderful, but they are so huge they could encompass an entire European street. They look too big for people to fill them up with life.
        I spoke to a planner at an open house who expressed a similar concern. He explained that this why he pushed for an exception along Dawson, moving the bike path for the new development at Gilmore Skytrain to an alley so that the street can feel more human scale.
        Meanwhile, the plazas we will be getting are part of the Brentwood and Gilmore developments are certainly welcome, but still semi-private spaces. Can activists pamphlet in them? Can buskers perform there? Can religious folks proselytize? Beggars beg? Children chalk the pavement to play hop-scotch? Or will non-commercial life be ejected by security?
        I am happy and excited to see my area developed. Anything is better than parking lots. But I don’t think it’s enough to say that we value greenspace and leave it at that. We need to experiment with other possibilities.

      2. Illuminating comments, Geoff.
        We are so bereft of true, quality urban design in the Metro (it’s a national problem too) that it’s painful.
        The issue isn’t so much the height and density of buildings, but their relationship to the street and the ground plane. This is where human interaction takes place, and where the human scale is so vital. Blank walls in urban centres are as inhuman as blank expanses of useless and resource gluttonous expanses of lawn in subdivisions.
        I’d say that small and highly detailed storefronts, facades and entries (not to mention generous rain protection) should be de rigueur on all downtown and arterial commercial and large-scale residential developments. This is the human contact zone.
        When we develop more attached single family housing, there should be a small setback of about 3m or so to accommodate the privacy Michael mentioned above and circulation (e.g. stairs to basement suites), in addition to the raised main floor plate. There is just too much land wastefully locked up in the setbacks of standard residential lots to ignore or avoid changing the urban design paradigm any longer. But that needs to be done with wisdom and care.

        1. “The issue isn’t so much the height and density of buildings, but their relationship to the street and the ground plane. This is where human interaction takes place, and where the human scale is so vital. Blank walls in urban centres are as inhuman as blank expanses of useless and resource gluttonous expanses of lawn in subdivisions.”
          I agree. Unless they cause problems with wind or lack of sun, I don’t much care how tall the towers are. What matters is my world on foot. I will say, though, that buildings can be too short, leaving the street open like a room without walls (I think Sitte draws this comparison). This is probably why I often like to see trolley wires helping to frame a street. Newer four to six storey buildings are doing wonders for Burnaby Heights.
          My wife suggests that the newly build sidewalks on Lougheed near Willingdon might be far better if they varied, instead of following a fixed setback: narrower in some places, opening up a bit into areas like mini plazas for chairs or vegetation.
          I think there are rare instances where voids can work. I am probably the only person who really liked the old Eaton’s building downtown (or “the UFO,” as I imagined it). I liked it because of how it related to Granville as I would come up from the Skytrain station. What would have been deadly on most streets worked there: the street was simply too busy to be harmed by the gap, and it provided a wonderful backdrop for foot traffic and people-watching. I have only really glimpsed the make-over with windows (I spend little time in Vancouver proper), but when it was under construction it struck me as just more of the same compared to the weird spacecraft that used to occupy that spot.

  3. Thanks Ron,
    I agree that we do need to create those great good people places as well (noting the announcement today about the expansion of Robson Square).
    When I think of my old Vancouver downtown neighbourhood in Triangle West, I see a very shallow gradient between the private and public realm. It is quite amazing what you can achieve with just a few metres of green space along the sidewalk and in front of buildings with patios, windows and doors on the street. That bit of landscaping and trees makes for a much more pleasant Vancouver downtown experience: overview for residents in buildings; canopy, shade, movement, colour, fragrance for people walking (a social activity in its own right, particularly if you have kids or a dog). The West End for example is particularly lush.
    But yes I get your point about too much setback. “Deep Space” in the Space Syntax thinking of Architectural theorist Bill Hillier.

  4. Michael and Jens – thank you very much for this useful and visually accessible info. I particularly note that the 400m population of Broadway Commercial hasn’t increased at all since around 2000 when I looked at the numbers, still 2k. Roughly the same at that time as Granville and Broadway, btw.
    The number of jobs in each location would be good to know as well. I imagine the KPMG (?) study for the Broadway subway a few years ago would have captured this info.

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