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The Urban Vision : Capture the BIG Picture
Name: Kaizer Rangwala
Bio: Kaizer Rangwala is the founding principal of Rangwala Associates, a town-planning firm that practices the principles of smart growth and walkable urbanism. Kaizer’s training and experience as an architect, city planner, and economic developer coupled with his international interests brings forth a broad and distinctive perspective to creating memorable places. He has over 20 years of public sector experience. Kaizer’s work on Form-Based Codes has been recognized with numerous awards. He has lectured extensively on smart growth, new urbanism, Form-Based Codes, and regulatory reform at planning conferences, planning schools, and at the Form-Based Codes Institute, where he also serves as the organization’s chairman. His writings have been featured in numerous architecture, urban design, planning, and economic development publications. He holds a master's in architecture from New Jersey Institute of Technology, a master's in city and regional planning from Rutgers University, and a certificate in Economic Development from the Economic Development Institute at Oklahoma University.
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Antibiotics for viral infections such as cold and flu patients have no effect on viruses, but over the long term helps create antibiotic-resistant disease — i.e.: when antibiotics no longer work against disease-causing bacteria. These infections are difficult and expensive to treat and in some cases can even cause death. Similarly, some of the popular solutions meant to heal our cities from congestion, lack of parking, and failing infrastructure end up causing more harm.
In 2009, the Mumbai Municipal Corporation’s decided to solve the parking problem by increasing the supply of public parking. The city would trade increased floor space index (FSI) for public parking spaces. This exchange of FSI, particularly in a non-transparent format where the public has little say, tends to criminalize the development review process. In lieu of developing a citywide parking strategy and fixing the parking standards, FSI was turned into a commodity that is traded for political and financial favors. If the parking problem is not bad enough, it is made worse by allowing more development intensity. The same clogged roads would now carry more cars. Parked or moving cars on the street is an alluring crutch not a panacea – the more we rely on car for personal mobility the more immobile the society becomes.
The flyovers and grade separated bridges have become popular solutions to increase
capacity and speed of traffic on city streets. A pedestrian overpass within urban areas, particularly to speed up traffic, seems less than ideal proposition for the area’s livability. Cities are best experienced at eye-level and lower speeds. How do you encourage people to climb stairs when the alternative is so much easier: simply walk across the street — do we build tall fences at intersections? Imagine facing an overpass if you are on a wheelchair, bike or using a stroller. The elevated freeways have decimated scores of vibrant historic neighborhoods and reduced the quality of life in our cities. The freeways blight adjacent property while encouraging more driving. Cities around the world are now replacing elevated highways with boulevards, saving money and increasing real estate values on adjacent land. Traffic is self perpetuating — the more you design for it, the more it increases. The mobility goal should be to move people (not just cars) more efficiently. In lieu of pedestrian overpasses, congestion pricing and investment in public transit may produce long-term enhanced mobility.
If congestion is a problem, reduce the number of people and the problem at best, will not get worse. A recent proposal from the State’s Urban Development Department recommended just that for Nagpur by reducing the amount of commercial building space. The theory being that more building results in more people which leads to more congestion.
Like most cities and countries in the world, the State Department relies on
Floor Space Index (FSI), a regulatory tool that controls the amount of building space that can be built based on the size of the lot. For example: a FSI of 1 on a 10,000 square feet lot will allow a 10,000 square feet building. Similarly, a FSI of 2 will allow 20,000 square footage of building area on the same size lot. Indian cities have adopted FSI since the 1960s.
Over the years, FSI has proven to be a blunt and ineffective tool of planning and controlling developing that needs to be replaced with more specific tools that promote place-making, smart growth, orderly financing of on- and off-site improvements, and continued maintenance. In Indian cities and cities around the world, FSI has caused several problems.
FSI has Failed to Produce Results
The primary reason to control FSI is to avoid congestion. However, FSI control has failed to achieve this objective. Mumbai and Nagpur have one of the highest densities achieved with the lowest and most uniform FSI in the world. Alain Bertaud, World Bank land use consultant, contends that controlling FSI does not reduce density, it merely reduces floor consumption by making it more expensive – also encourages unhealthy overcrowding. Ill-conceived FSI regulation curb housing supply and are responsible for 60% of Mumbai’s housing being in the slums.
FSI artificially caps supply, increases the cost of commerce and housing and pushes development further out causing the city and infrastructure to expand spatially, creates large scale environmental problems, and increases the commuting distances and isolates the poor from areas of employment.
FSI is ineffective in shaping the public realm: the parks and streets, and prevents redevelopment in underutilized urban areas. With each new development the quality of life, particularly in the public realm should improve, not decrease. In many areas like the Nariman Point – Mumbai’s CBD, the FSI’s was reduced from where it was in old days. Old buildings don’t have incentive to rebuild — the result is global businesses are starting to move out to less expensive and newer buildings within the region.
FSI slows down desirable economic growth and takes away a revenue source to pay for needed infrastructure improvements and its continued maintenance. If FSI is meant to keep a lid on growth due to inadequate existing infrastructure, does it make sense to forgo the incredible opportunity cost of land to save on the comparatively meager infrastructure cost? FSI forces the real estate game to be played out at a parcel-by-parcel level, rather than a comprehensive regional strategy for managing growth.
FSI fails to conceptualize high quality urbanism and walkable places because the resulting form of public realm is completely unpredictable – an FSI of 1 can generate a 1-story building on a 1 acre site or the same FSI can generate a 12-story building located on 1/12 of an acre of the 1 acre site. Envelope- based regulations such as FSI, are literally interpreted as the maximum allowable massing for their project. Architects take these allowable envelopes, construe them to be every building’s raw form, and the few that are tad bit creative, skin or twist the building in the latest global style and turn them into “instant” architecture that is essentially self referential. Such buildings bear no relationship to their surroundings, as they share no common formal ingredients with the building fabric and space patterns within the urban block where they are sited.
A comprehensive regional vision for Nagpur, Mumbai and other areas should establish the existing and future need for commerce and housing. Density allocations should be based on this regional need, transportation and infrastructure networks, and environment sensitivity. Density metrics should always be a range and not a specific number. It can be high (2-10 FSI) at transit nodes and low (1-2 FSI) in sensitive areas. To access the higher numbers, developers must mitigate impacts, and built more amenities and public improvements.
The FSI based regulatory framework has failed to produce results not just in Nagpur and Mumbai, but throughout the world. Cities across the world are developing innovative tools to replace the sole reliance on FSI. In the US, a few urbanists from varied backgrounds and locations have developed Form-Based Coding (FBC). Miami, Denver and scores of other cities are adopting FBCs. FBCs make the good easy to build. FBCs produce predictable results and high-quality streets and parks by using physical form as the organizing principle. Rather than abstract mathematical calculations, the FBC creates few and specific standards important to deliver the desired vision for a place.
Like the body, the city becomes ‘dis-eased’ if all systems are not in balance. FBCs brings together a whole system approach by integrating planning, zoning, design, subdivision, civil and traffic engineering, and safety standards so they operate in unison, rather than clashing with one another. In contrast to FSI, FBCs reduce discretionary review. Because most of the important decisions are handled upfront, the streamlined review process at the project level saves everyone time, effort and money.
We must ask the right questions. If the question is: how do I increase the speed of traffic? A simplistic solution maybe to build a flyover. However, if the question is: how can I build a balanced transportation system? The solution is much more complex and needs to serve several different perspectives. The smart specialists have to be challenge with the right questions. For healthy living, the different organs of the ‘organ-ization’ must operate together in a mutually beneficial way.
The problems of congestion, parking, and inadequate infrastructure are not problems that the public sector can resolve without private sector contribution. The solution is not “no growth” or “slow growth” but growing smartly. Metropolitan regions should develop a regional plan that determines the existing and future needs, reform the development codes, and offer incentives that encourage new growth that will begin to heal the congestion and parking problems by requiring the private sector to mitigate its impacts by investing in public transit and other road improvements and providing the needed infrastructure improvements.
Would you rather stand out or blend in? We all have personal preferences on how we have dress, what we do for a living, what we say, and how we say it. My sense is majority of us would say it depends. It depends on what? It depends on the time. If everyone decided to speak at once we could not hear anybody. It also depends on place. We choose not to wear shorts and sandals to a formal event — the place for sandals is on the beach. We are so mindful of time, place, custom, the context, for every fleeting moment yet we are so cavalier and tolerant of the buildings that we build or allow to be built in our cities.
Indian cities are traditionally low-rise cities. Tall by its very nature wants to stand out. As a result, tall needs to be a deliberate and mindful exercise that is respectful to the vernacular ethos of the place and contribute to the vitality of street life.
Historic photograph of Kalbadevi Road, a uniquely Indian street shaped by contextual buildings designed for Indian climate, Indian people — and their customs and preferences.
The character and setting of Kalbadevi Road and buildings are specifically designed for the location. The street is a shared space where pedestrian, trams, and other forms other forms of transportation coexist. The buildings and its openings are designed for the Indian climate, customs, and individual preferences. Ground floor is commercial uses with residences above. For residential uses at the street level there is a semi-public court or verandah in the front before you access the more private areas. The windows extend from the floor to the ceilings. The openings in the facade offer a variety of permutations for personal comfort. Indian families sit on the floor. The bottom panel when opened allows cool breeze and views when the person is sitting on the floor. The central panel has louvers for shade and privacy. The top panel allows light into the deeper areas of the rooms and when opened ventilates the hot air out of the rooms.
Context gives us high-quality buildings and streets that work together in harmony to create a place that is open, inclusive, and has a unique identity. Paying attention to the context of an area ensures that new development reinforces rather than undermines local community.
Tall Buildings Characteristics
A tall building reaching for the sky is the most potent and visible symbol of success. Just as well-designed tall buildings can be standalone landmarks, unattractive and badly designed tall buildings will not blend in easily and harm the image of the city. Without public design review and decent development codes the risk of bad architecture is great.
Tall buildings in urban setting can be efficient use of land — they pack more people on less land and preserve open spaces and farms that supply local food to the cities. However, tall buildings can also perpetuate social segregation and isolation, much like a vertical gated community.
A common damaging aspect of the tall building is how it meets the streets — blank walls and security gates destroy the street life.
The simple strategy with tall buildings is to take maximum advantage of the benefits while addressing the concerns.
Indian Context: Average Population Density
The density in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore is amongst the most populated cities in the world. However, this density has largely been accommodated in low to mid-rise buildings. One reason for this is because Indian cities have the lowest floor space index (FSI), in the world. Besides being low, the FSI is also uniform.
Ill-conceived FSI are a major hindrance to tall buildings. The FSI should be a range, not an absolute number. To access the higher FSI range, developers should mitigate the impacts and provide needed amenities.
Rather than waiting for another 20 years for rail and metro that we need today, the FSI can be increased to 15-20 at transit stops with the developers contributing to the rail and metro network, while in other sensitive areas the increase may be a modest 1 to 2.5 FSI.
FSIs are also poor predictor of building form. A FSI of 1 can produce a one story perimeter block building or a 12 story tall building. FSI is a poor predictor of urban form and is a serious impediment to contextual development.
Contextual Tall Buildings.
Mediocre tall buildings that fail to connect with the context disillusion the public appetite for tall — less is better when it fails to make a positive contribution to the quality of life of the area.
There are five factors that make a tall building contextual.
1. Tall Building Strategy
To be contextual tall must be part of an overall tall building strategy. The city’s skyline should be viewed as its topography. A single tall building has high image value and is easier to insert at various locations in the city, the intensification from a single tall building is relatively low. Clusters of tall buildings achieve more intensification but may be appropriate only in few areas. Each city needs a unique tall building strategy based on local context.
Recent tall buildings were threatening to replace the historic buildings in Old Town Foshan, China. Old town has the 900 year old temple and excellent examples of ling nan architecture. The character defining features of this style are curved gables, stone walls, courtyards, and dense alleys. The height of buildings around the temple are limited — so when you are on the temple grounds you will not see the taller buildings.
The taller buildings are located along the transit line in clusters to minimize impact. The master plan creates urban hill and valley forms. The temple and old town are the valley and the higher density development represents the hills that increase in height with increased distance from the historic area. This layout provides sunlight and views for the new developments, while preserving the light and views for the historic areas.
2. Response to Climate Monsoon Window
Monsoon window detailing in Singapore (right) adapted from traditional home in Dyak (left). The window allows fresh air and keeps out rain and wind gusts. Images courtesy of WOHA Designs and Tim Griffith.
Vernacular architecture can teach us common sense solutions to climate. The Dyak Longhouses in Borneo have horizontal openings below projecting ledges, which allows the cool breeze to come in while keeping the monsoon rain out. WOHA Architects adopted this vernacular response to climate into the high-rise form. Designing buildings for local climate not only conserve energy but also give the building a unique identity.
To reduce heat gain, a perforated skin on the south facade fully shades the facade and conceals the air conditioning units, clothes drying area, and horizontal sun shading ledges.
3. Individual Preferences
People buy apartments as off the shelf products — with very limited opportunity to customize the space to individual preferences and needs. The window openings in the Kalbadevi Road buildings in Mumbai allow residents to customize the use of space to maximize comfort.
In Moulmein Rise, Singapore, the overhangs, planters, bay windows, sliding windows and sunscreens, can be rearranged to suit personal comfort of the residents. Image courtesy of WOHA Designs
Similarly, in tall building individuals should be allowed to customize and rearrange the overhangs, planters, bay windows, and sunscreen in myriad ways to suit individual preferences. Designing tall buildings to respond to local preferences, customs, and needs makes the building contextual
4. Community Spaces & Nature
Indian cities have the lowest open space per person ratio in the world. Tall buildings have a particularly important role to address this need because they add more people without adding to open spaces. Sky parks and landscaping adds visual cues of scale for residents in a tall building. Sky parks also act as social spaces addressing alienation.
5. Street Level Impact
Left: Traditional mid-rise buildings line up to create a continuous street wall. Center: Tall buildings sit as freestanding objects in a plaza or parking lot. Right: Preferred configuration where tall buildings are placed on a contextual base that preserves the street wall with publicly accessible activity at the street level. Above the base, the tower can be individual creative expressions of design. Images courtesy of Urban Advantage.
Traditional mid-rise buildings line up to create a continuous street wall that supports an active street life.
In contrast, tall buildings sit as freestanding objects in a plaza or parking lot. The plazas are dark and desolated spaces that compromise street life. In many cases, the street level walls, gates and guards provides a grim reminder of the exclusive nature.
A preferred configuration is where tall buildings are placed on a human scaled contextual base that preserves the street wall with publicly accessible activity at the street level. Above the base, the tower can be individual creative expressions of design.
The public sector has limited resources to do it all by themselves. They should partner with private sector, NGOs and citizens to develop a clear vision for growth, preservation and redevelopment. The public sector should reduce regulatory barriers and create a culture of growth. Offering a streamlined development review and approval process saves time to do other the few and important things well.
Growth should pay for itself. Tall buildings should be self-sustaining and not depend on taxpayer funds to provide affordable housing, infrastructure improvements, network of mobility options, public amenities and maintenance. The public sector has to determine needs for each area and set up a developer impact fee system to fund onsite improvements. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) can fund off-site improvements. In TIF, the developer up-fronts the cost of infrastructure and gets refunded from the increment in taxes generated from new development. Continued maintenance can be funded by the creation of public-private partnerships.
The Form-Based Code include a Regulating Plan (a map of the streets and open spaces where different building envelope standards apply); Building Envelope Standards (regulations controlling the configuration, features, and functions of buildings that define and shape the public realm); Architectural Standards —including building materials and architectural detailing—that are important to the quality and character of a vibrant new downtown; and Street Type Standards (specifications for the elements within the public realm such as sidewalks, travel lanes, on-street parking, street trees, and street furniture).
Form-based codes (FBC) make the good easy to build. This type of development regulations produces predictable built results and a superior public realm by using physical form as the organizing principle. FBCs are graphic-based codes that allow the public to visualize in advance the form and location of the streets, buildings, and open spaces leading to a higher comfort level with taller buildings. FBCs require far less discretionary review and process, which saves everyone time, money and effort.
Indian cities have over 50% of its population living in substandard, illegal or unsafe housing. In addition, Indian cities are projected to add several million people. Taller buildings are going to be necessary. Where and how we grow are important considerations.
There is no need to build tall. Tall needs to be a deliberate and planned strategy that delivers more efficiency in land use and innovative contextual design. Indian cities have rich and long history. The existing buildings give the place an anchor and identity. India has for ages adapted to changes in a sustainable manner and can show the world how to integrate tall contextually.
While other places clamor to stand out, amongst this noise, India can stand out as an example of how to blend tall buildings into an existing context.
A clubhouses, large swimming pools, wading pools, health spas with large exercise studios, jacuzzis, steam, sauna and Turkish baths, table tennis, and billiards are the typical amenities that future residents will enjoy in thousands of new apartment units that were featured at a recent real estate and finance exhibition in Mumbai. These units will also be equipped with the best gizmos money can buy.
At another extreme, newspapers are filled with inner-city redevelopment schemes that tout tall buildings, wide streets, and over 50% of green space in areas where little or no open space exists today.
What’s not to like about the private amenities, iconic buildings, and generous percentage of green space? After all this is what the public aspires for and wants. There is nothing wrong with a rich private realm. The same richness should also extend into the public realm. The public realm that is defined by the private buildings and the design of public streets and the open space.
Buildings designed as icons in the landscape fail to spatially define a place. Traditionally, buildings in the urban core line up to create a continuous street wall that supports an active street life. In stark contrast, contemporary tall buildings sit as freestanding icons in green buffers or parking lots. The open spaces are left over, dark and desolated spaces that does little more than add distance between the buildings and compromise a coherent street life. Contemporary buildings should be placed on a human scaled contextual base that preserves the street wall with publicly accessible activity at the street level. Above the base, the tower can be iconic creative expressions of design.
Streets designed solely to move traffic is a no-win proposition that are destroying many wonderful places in urban cities. Peak demand will always outpace supply. Flyovers and grade-separated skywalks progressively create unpleasant places at the street level and in relatively short time they too exceed capacity and fail to satisfy the driver or the pedestrian. In urban cities, transit and pedestrian experience should trump driver’s comfort.
Open spaces when provided as abstract and numerical computations by individual projects seldom come together to promote communal life. If we dig deeper and start to evaluate the functional types of open spaces, we can design these spaces for its intended purpose, whether it is a small pocket park, a large community green, an urban plaza, or a square. These spaces can begin to serve as organizing elements for individual development. Studies have shown that units that front open spaces generate a 25% premium sale and rental price.
In the past, loss of open space meant a gain of urbanism. With each new development the city progressively became a better place to live. The same cannot be said of development today — with each development the city gets slightly worse than before — the public realm gets compromised, and the infrastructure is more strained than before. Walls, gates, and guards have become common responses to the public realm.
The development proposals at the real estate exhibition in Mumbai and the scores of redevelopment schemes have their share of iconic buildings and these buildings sit within meticulously landscaped areas — some proudly gated and guarded against the public realm. Twisted, warped, and turned in every way humanly possible, these buildings may be great as icons but collectively they cannot sit next to each other and deliver great urban places. These buildings are buffered from each other by landscaped areas so their architects can design in perfect freedom from its context. Everyone likes landscaping — landscaping ends up covering the inadequacy to design an urban building that will create or add to a place. Sadly, these projects are now being marketed as eco- green- or landscape-urbanism.
Vibrant urban cities are the most climate-friendly human proposition to house the growing population. If we neglect the public realm we impair a key reason why people live together in urban areas. New- and re-development schemes that heal and reinforce the public realm is good business and good for the city and the environment.
Compared to suburban greenfield sites, developing infill brownfield property is complicated and costly. We must level the playing field by implementing policies that make infill properties desirable to investors. Many cities and states are following Maryland’s example. In 1997, the state adopted a Smart Growth Areas Act that coordinates economic development with planning. The Act specifies that Maryland will only spend infrastructure and economic development dollars in priority areas that are already served by infrastructure or are planning to build infrastructure – this policy has allowed Maryland to dramatically reinvest in repair, maintenance, and upgrade of existing infrastructure in its urban core.
The region is the fundamental economic unit of the world. For cities to prosper, the region must adopt smart growth policies and actions that favor infill growth over sprawl. Competitive sales wars between cities hurt the region. Businesses moving out of a city to a sprawling greenfield site results in declining revenues and services for the city and loss of land for agriculture and open space in the areas receiving the growth.1 This is a net loss to the region’s economy, environment, and quality of life. Reinvesting in the aging and struggling areas builds the revenue base of the city and benefits the urban core and the suburbs.
Smart growth and green development decisions make efficient use of taxpayers’ investments in infrastructure improvements and services such as police and fire. Ventura, California, is currently implementing a smart growth-based General Plan that focuses on protecting natural resources while promoting high-quality, low impact urban infill development. Smart and compact growth insures us against any limits that high energy costs may impose on our ability to drive everywhere.“In the face of such global threats and opportunities, local communities must fundamentally reshape their approach to economic development away from targeting aggregate growth as an end in itself. Instead, our focus will need to be on fostering a healthy economy that is integrated with our concern for the environment and social equity, the three pillars of sustainability,” says Ventura City Manager Rick Cole. “Easier said than done, of course. It is not enough to simply slap a ‘green’ label on recycled conventional strategies. We need to not only rethink, but redo our approach. In Ventura, for example, we pay less attention to sales tax revenue and more to the retention and creation of high-value, high-wage jobs that generate the wealth that is the underlying source of retail sales. In a time of transition, our need is not for a perfect academic model. Instead, it is time to experiment with fundamentally changed approaches. The communities that successfully do so will be the real models for the 21st century.”
One obstacle to smart growth is the current zoning codes. Conventional zoning codes separate the daily needs of shopping, housing, and work into disjointed zones accessible only by automobiles. A large number of cities are replacing their conventional zoning codes with form-based codes. Form-based coding is an integrated place-based approach that focuses on the careful design of the public realm: the street, open spaces, and the public face of private buildings. Land uses are not ignored but regulated by broad parameters that better respond to market economics and allow for a mix of uses serving daily needs within easy walking distances. Predictable outcomes and a streamlined process that reduces discretionary review are other business-friendly attributes of this coding method. Peter Katz, an urban theorist and Form-Based Code Institute2 president says, “Form-Based Codes are strongly linked to public participation programs and lead to more appropriately scaled projects that are more consistently linked with the needs of emerging economies