Urban Density for Humans and the Five Story Rule

A while ago, I described how Boston manages to have high residential density without a lot of skyscrapers (boldface added):

Here we see that Beacon Hill, parts of Back Bay and the South End, the North End and Bay Village are very dense. Yet contra Yglesias and the other wonks, these areas have very few skyscrapers. In fact, most buildings have five stories (four floors and a basement), with a smattering of taller buildings that max out at fourteen stories (and most of the taller buildings aren’t that high, more like nine stories). So how does Boston do it?

Well, obviously, apartments aren’t that large, which is the case for most cities. But besides that, Boston has two things going for it that most other cities don’t have: narrow streets and sidewalks. Not a lot of space is wasted in residential areas. Sidewalks at most are about nine to ten feet wide, and skinnier in other places (e.g., Beacon Hill). The streets typically are very narrow–about ten Mad Biologist paces (my pace length is about average)–if you factor in parked cars, add about four paces. Not only does this making walking around easier, but the real estate is used to house people, not air or cars. That allows much higher densities (although it makes drivers crazy at times) without skyscrapers.

I highlighted the five stories, since I recently finished Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City, who describes some of the changes happening in Phoenix, Arizona (boldface mine):

While the big-name developers from outside were investing heavily and ultimately losing out with high-rise towers, a third-generation Phoenix builder named Eric Brown was experimenting with a different idea: much smaller apartment building, stucco over frame, designed to human scale and generally affordable to the middle class. Brown put these structures up in and around downtown, wherever there was a vacant lot he could afford. He generally created twenty units to the acre, much less density than the high-rises, but much more density than downtown Phoenix had had before. By 2008, there were five of these projects in central Phoenix, including Artisan Village, just north of downtown, five acres of townhouses that included ten live-work units, with retail on the bottom and condominiums above reserved for the merchants.

None of Brown’s projects was as striking as the tall towers, but they were generally pleasing to look at, and they had one crucial advantage: They sold. Virtually every unit was occupied, even during the leanest recession years, and those that were resold generally went for markups of as much as 50 percent. In fact, though, not many of them did go on the market for resale. “People weren’t buying to flip,” as Brown put it. His projects had the lowest turnover rates of anything being built in metropolitan Phoenix. Brown’s admirers felt he might be laying the groundwork for a twenty-first-century Western equivalent of New York brownstone neighborhoods.

Brown’s buildings varied slightly in height, but all of them were less than sixty feet, because sixty feet is the threshold that triggers much more onerous buidling code requirements for things like plumbing and fire prevention. The majority of buildings were five stores, four for residential units, with a retail podium extending out on the ground floor. For Brown, this was not only a business decision but a matter of urban philosophy. “Life happens under five stories,” he said. “Everything above is just a place to pack people.”

If Eric Brown sees an element of magic in the five-story building, he is not the first one. The boulevards that Haussmann built in Paris were lined with five-story buildings; so was most of the Ringstrasse in nineteenth-century Vienna. Of course, there were nonaesthetic reasons for that uniformity–in the days before elevators, five sets of stairs were about as much as anybody could be expected to climb, and the absence of steel-frame construction made building much taller than that difficult anyway.

So Paris and Vienna became five-story cities. And many consequences flowed from that. People on fifth-floor balconies could lean over their flower boxes and watch the action on the street below. The pedestrians could wave or talk to those above. Residence and street were integrated in a way entirely different from anything that prevailed at the time in neighborhoods where the apartment buildings were skyscrapers.

Back Bay and Beacon Hill (and many other Boston neighborhoods) were also built pre-skyscraper. Equally critical is that these neighborhoods were built pre-automobile. Like Vienna and Paris, most of the space was dedicated to humans, not metal beasts. That’s the real secret to enjoyable, high-density living.

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4 Responses to Urban Density for Humans and the Five Story Rule

  1. dr2chase says:

    There’s a neighborhood in Davis, CA, that is not done with 5-story density, but it was designed to minimize the length, size, and importance of the roads. Compare left and right sides here (you might need to expand a little in each direction) https://maps.google.com/maps?q=davis,+ca&hl=en&ll=38.55128,-121.782643&spn=0.003495,0.002199&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=41.411029,59.589844&hnear=Davis,+Yolo,+California&t=h&z=18

    Keep in mind that some of the things you see on the right that look like roads are foot or bike paths. Both neighborhoods seem to be roughly the same density, in terms of moving either the left or right side into a browser window and counting houses, but the RHS has some interesting hunks of open space the that the LHS lacks.

    If you go there, at least, when I went there to look around, you’ll notice that the “street side” of most of the houses is not that much to look at. It’s more or less like the alley-side of properties, in places that have alleys. Parked cars and garbage cans, that sort of thing.

  2. I grew up in the Phoenix burbs and the redevelopment of the urban core in the past few years has been amazing. Its even been enough that my mom has recently moved from a 4000 sq ft McMansion into a 1200 square foot condo downtown. She loves it.

    I’m now in San Diego and I live on the edge of the densest residential neighborhoods here, 15 miles from downtown. Building height? ~ 5 stories. However, all of the buildings have underground parking and huge 4 lane boulevards separating them, very little public transport (only buses, no rail connection), and no integrated commercial space. Its like the worst of all worlds… high density but you still need a car to get to the grocery store.

    Putting that book on my list…

  3. joemac53 says:

    My dad was a Boston firefighter from right after WWII until 1979. He thought 5 stories was about the height limit for ladder trucks if you wanted to go after people inside. If you just wanted to spray water to contain a fire, he said you could go a lot higher. He knew all about torque from all that shifting weight of people compared to a constant torque from a hose.
    He always complained about the streets being narrow and full of cars, with no room for “equipment”.
    We lived, however, in a regular three-decker by Upham’s corner.

  4. Matthew says:

    This is key, really. Getting more infill development up to 4-5 stories would do wonders for Boston. The North End fits 170 dwelling units/net acre in that constraint. That’s more than necessary, even.

    Coverage is more important than height. Not wasting space on useless, unloved “greenspace” like median strips is important; it takes away from real parks. Not wasting space on parking lots is important; those are dead spaces. Small blocks and diversity of use is important; makes walking a joy instead of a chore.

    The problem is that “density” is associated with ugly towers-in-the-park development, and people rightfully recoil from that. But those towers are not really dense because of all the land wasted around them. And that land ends up being perfect for parking lots, so nobody walks anywhere, and the streets go dead.

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