How Tall is Too Tall? Context, Density and the Future of Our Towns and Cities

“I think the perception of building height is a context driven issue, and the question of its appropriateness is an aspirational one.”

– John Rufo, Principal at Form + Place

Rockville Town Square

Rockville Town Square

“It’s too tall!”

It’s a common reaction, heard increasingly these days at public hearings and other gatherings to discuss and deliberate proposed developments.

But how tall is too tall?  How many floors is the right number of floors?  Does the old Supreme Court obscenity standard "I know it when I see it" apply to deciding when a building is too tall? Or can it be more subjective than that?

Without choosing sides or weighing in directly about particular projects or regions, here are a few data points one might consider when mulling over the “how tall is too tall” issue:


Context Is Everything

The context of any project is critical to understanding it’s massing. Ask yourself what kind of buildings are surrounding the development. What kind of buildings, if any, stand on the proposed parcel now and will they be part of the new project or razed (partially or in full) to make way for the new development? Also ask yourself what the context provides as key infrastructure supporting the kind of density that could translate into massing that one might perceive as “tall” or even “tower-like”. For instance, is there good highway access, a nearby greenway and perhaps most importantly is there access to public transportation?

As urban designers we ask ourselves these questions because in order for our cities and towns to continue to thrive, they must also continue to grow, and manage that growth with an eye to future sustainability. Population growth and location statistics make it pretty clear that soon more of us will live in “urban” areas than will live in “non-urban” areas. The road to sustainability is not through single-family style sub-urbanism, but through smart growth that clusters and densifies development around existing and expandable infrastructure.

So, if context is everything, but allowing for certain density and height is a critical part of sustainable development, then is the existing scale (height and general bulk) of a neighborhood still a relevant metric for judging the appropriateness of the scale of a new development? Truly a million-dollar question.  We would argue that yes, it is still relevant, but it needs to be understood as being most important at the point of transition (i.e. the public realm between the buildings) and that understanding the public realm as a “continuum of placemaking aspirations” is critical. Taller more dense projects tend to act as nodes of regional interest and gateways between communities. As such they owe a bit more to the community in terms of placemaking and civic vitality.

Reston Town Center

Reston Town Center

These larger projects offer terrific opportunities for placemaking.  For instance, between the buildings in a development, or between a new development and an adjacent neighborhood, there are many potential types of spaces and amenities such as streets, with their attendant sidewalks, parking spaces, crosswalks, street trees, benches, etc.  There are also small parks with public art, fountains, landscaping, and lighting considerations, as well as outdoor cafes and other dining areas. The continuum of spaces that we encounter in a good walkable neighborhood, sets up our perceptions about whether the buildings are out of scale with their surroundings or somehow in dialogue with the places they are a part of. In other words, if the placemaking is generous enough, it really diminishes the importance of height as the key metric.

The architecture itself is another critical piece of the equation. Ask yourself if the tall building your standing next to takes some appropriate measures to acknowledge the scale of the human body. Is the ground floor publicly accessible (after all not every building can have thriving retail on the ground floor)?  Does the design of the building somehow mark the first story, or maybe the first two stories, in a way that acknowledges the scale of the pedestrian and the activities of the street? Does it have smaller massing elements that act as a transition between the public space and the larger bulk of the building? Does it feel like there is an implied zone adjacent to the building where people are in fact supposed to be and can take some measure of ownership of the public realm?


 What do we want our cities and towns to say about us?

We’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately. As architects and designers of places as well as buildings, we think there is an imperative to think democratically. That could obviously manifest itself in many ways but to us this means that as part of our general contribution to solving the region’s housing crisis (and there is a regional housing crisis) we need to look away from the old suburban model of “one lot - one house”, and be strategic about clustering housing in locations that make sense and allow greater numbers of people access to critical necessities like public transportation, urban green spaces, recreational areas, walkable neighborhoods, and civic vitality in general.

Assembly Row - Photo credit Copley Wolff Design Group

Assembly Row - Photo credit Copley Wolff Design Group

While building height is an easy lightning rod for quick judgement of the “size” of a proposed development, we would argue that the quality of placemaking inside and around the project is a more important measure of its appropriateness. Instead of asking if it’s too tall, ask if it seems like you could “feel at home” walking down that street. Could you take temporary ownership of a portion of that space as you engage in the act of citizenry? Has it been made with you in mind? Does the space know it and does the building know it?  If yes, we would contend that the building height is appropriate, if no, then we would say it is out of scale with and perhaps inappropriate for the site in question.