By Ann Pham, Communication Coordinator, Canada West Foundation
Living in a city where the temperature is below freezing for what feels like the majority of year, I’ve always been thankful for "skywalks". These are indoor pedestrian bridges that connect together the separate buildings in the downtown core. Here in Calgary, we call them the “+15s.” The reason is that most of them are about 15 feet above street level.
Antony Wood is the Director of the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a Chicago-based non-profit. For him, 15 feet high skywalk bridges are just a start. He imagines pedestrian bridges that connect at different points of our downtown buildings, and ones that are high enough to connect the top of the Calgary Tower to the Bow. These bridges, 30, 50, even 100 stories high, would improve access, mobility, and circulation in a network of towers. (1)
Okay. But why would we want that?
Recently, the UN published an interesting report entitled “Better City, Better Life." The study makes a number of predictions about urban growth in the future and discusses various responses to better manage that urban future. According to the report:
“The second and third decades of the 21st Century will be an unprecedented moment in human history when the global population moves from 50% urban today to 70% urban in a little over a generation from now. Arguably, the greatest challenge facing humanity, a collaborative, sustainable approach to all aspects of this rapid urbanization is needed.” (2)
Around the world, almost 200,000 people move into a city each and every day. That’s almost six million people a month. Around the globe, that’s akin to creating a new metro Toronto every 30 days! By 2050, the UN’s demographers say we will need 10,000 new cities to house three billion additional urban inhabitants.
Well, all of that certainly carries some implications.
For example, most urban commentators see a much more dense urban future. If our cities are to stay affordable and become more environmentally sustainable, then arguably, there’s really nowhere to go but up. Sprawl requires a lot of expensive infrastructure and it consumes a lot of land.
“We’ve got to recognize that we inhabit a different world now,” says Wood. “The scale of the problem ahead of us is far greater than the problems we’ve already faced. If we accept the fact that cities are going to get denser, and thus more vertical, we need to rethink our cities.”
It’s all about re-orienting ourselves to accommodate a much different urban space.
Skybridges were the topic of Wood’s dissertation in 2003. “When I started this, people thought I was crazy,” he says. But he stuck with the idea, arguing that any fundamental rethink has to begin with a broader conception of the ground level, where social interaction takes place and communities are built.
Today’s skyscrapers are a disconnected jumble of office, residential, and hotel space. “That’s not a city,” says Wood. If we’re going to make tall buildings socially inclusive, the only way we’re going to do that is to connect them at height, to allow us to introduce public zones in the sky and recreate the ground layer.”
Viewed more simply, a school on the 57th floor of a building only works if it connects easily and aesthetically to family residences, a playground, a library, a soccer field. Skybridges essentially pull together tall buildings into networks, and these networks not only have the potential to reduce total energy consumption, but they can create “green corridors” in the sky. (1)
While it all seems to make some sense, who wants to be indoors all the time? Although I’m not the most “outdoorsy” person, I still like fresh air and the feeling of wind in my hair. How’s that going to be possible if we’re spending all our time indoors, hundreds of feet above the ground, getting from place to place by walking through what feels like tunnels in the sky?
It doesn’t have to be that way. With a little creativity, tall buildings can be stimulating, and refreshing. Just check out this park in the sky in New York City.
The park—also known as the High Line—was created from an old railway, running through downtown Manhattan. It was founded in 1999 by community residents who fought for its preservation when the structure was on the verge of being demolished.
According to Paul Goldberger, co-founder of the High Line, the park merges the idea of the street with the idea of the park (3). Today, the High Line has become a venue for all sorts of events, attracting tourists, and provides commuters a peaceful escape from below.
“It slows people down and that’s one of the secrets of its success” says Robert Hammond, another co-founder.
As Wood affirms, “It’s not about sticking a few bridges in the sky”. It’s about creating an entirely new dimension to a city when perhaps there’s nowhere to go but up.
What do you think? Would you be willing to take your life up a few more stories? Share your thoughts with us below.
1. “City Life, Recreated in the Sky”, David Lepeska, Mar, 28, 2012.
2. “Join the World Urban Campaign: Better City, Better Life”, UN.
3. "Millions stroll in New York’s ‘park in the sky’", BBC.