Skyscraper City or Urban Sprawl

My friends in would probably love today’s title.  It’s not too often that people use the word “skyscraper” these days.  Maybe because the novelty of tall buildings faded.  The term actually became popular in the early 1990’s when building construction technology improved.  Originally, it referred to buildings which exceeded ten storeys, which, at that time, connoted pride and achievement.  Decades later, they tried to define it to mean buildings with steel frames, used mainly for offices and commercial use.  But nowadays, it’s a generic term for structure much taller than the regular height of the skyline of a city, regardless of construction material or use.  Lately, condominiums joined the fray.

Now people are starting to notice these in Cebu.  In Cebu City alone, it was reported that 31 new high-rise (another ambiguous term) buildings got permits since last year.  People at knew this trend a long time ago.  What is it in tall buildings that generates adrenalin rush on people?  I hope this is not remotely psychologically connected to the biblical account of the tower of Babel, but no one can deny that buildings are growing taller and taller with each generation.  There is a logical reason for that of course, both in urban planning and in the planning for transportation of the city.  The question is – what should be the policy?

There are three ways we can look at it.  First, the passive way, is to be surprised, and react to the “high-rise boom.”  Secondly, is to frown on such, and try to find ways to disperse to the suburban area.  Third, is to encourage it, and actually plan for it!  We must keep in mind that a growth in high-rise buildings is exactly the opposite of urban sprawl, where single-detached houses sprout all over the outskirts of the city (suburbs).  Urban sprawl, a result of the “dispersal” theory, was once considered a boon because of its low density but is now generally considered an urban problem – something a city should not wish for.  The global urbanization phenomenon recognizes that densification is the key to better growth.

The only problem here is that while denser development is desirable, it requires and equally more efficient mass transport system.  Cluster ten 50-storey buildings in one area and you have a traffic nightmare in your hands.  You might say, well, let’s disperse the ten skyscrapers all over the city then.  That’s even worse, and you’ll get a gigantic transport infrastructure gap that will need billions of pesos to build.  We’ll be better off with clustered high-rises.  But a public mass transportation system is non-negotiable.  This goes the same even with residential buildings.  Develop 20 single-family subdivisions around the city and your headache elevates to a developmental migraine!  Condos are actually more efficient.

In our previous write-ups, we emphasized the need to integrate land use and transport planning.  In the Philippines, this is still a dream.  Metro Manila is an example – a bad example at that, with all due respects to our friends there.  But let’s hope Cebu and other urban centers will not follow the capital’s history.  What we need is what is more known only to transport science practitioners – TOD, or transport-oriented development.  TOD recognizes the indivisibility of land use and transport planning.  A traffic impact assessment (TIA) which we discussed last week is an important tool towards this direction.  But it should be viewed city-wide and not merely how buildings manage their traffic around them.

What is important is that we recognize that the city is a living organism, composed of people, and structures are merely built to provide a better place for us.  One part of the city affects the rest, following the butterfly effect of chaos theory.  We will be better off with a higher skyline AND a mass transport system to achieve it.  (suggestion: google “transport-oriented development”)