Lessons from its big sisters

Lessons from its big sisters

Amsterdam learns high-rise from Toronto, Chicago and Vancouver

In September 2016, a delegation of politicians, planners and developers from Amsterdam toured Toronto, Chicago and Vancouver, meeting their local equivalents and visiting notable sites, including Urban Capital’s River City in Toronto. Their aim – to learn how these three dynamic North American cities do development, as a precedent for planning the Sluisbuurt district in Amsterdam, a new high-rise neighbourhood just outside the city centre. Burton Hamfelt, the architect who spearheaded the trip, tells us what they discovered. 

A North American love affair is developing between metropolitan cores and newcomers to the city. Ever expanding groups of new city dwellers are ignoring the traditional allure of car-based and inexpensive suburban living when deciding where and how to live. Instead they are heading for high rises in big city cores that are walkable, vital and growing.  

What makes a great big city? What makes a big city great? The first question is for planners while the second is what we leave for others to develop and let happen. Making a big city great is about allowing unplanned urban liveliness to flourish. Toronto, Chicago and Vancouver are examples of thriving big cities, where high-rise development, a rich variety of mixed use and an active urban street life form the fabric of city life.

From the Amsterdam perspective a number of questions arise: What works and what doesn’t? What is the impact of recent planning guidelines on the actual development of these cities? And what can this mean for the high rise (and big city) ambitions of the Sluisbuurt in Amsterdam? 

Toronto the better

“It’s one thing to grow; it’s another thing to grow well.” 

If Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner, has it right, then Toronto plans to write the book on the best way to grow a city. Over the past 15 years Toronto has witnessed extraordinary if not alarming growth in its urban core. Much of this can be credited to the unique convergence of the province’s land use policies, particularly the greenbelt around the greater Toronto region; guidelines to concentrate high density growth in the urban core; low interest rates; healthy immigration levels; and an attraction for lots of young people to study and work in the city.

Toronto wants to create a city where people have to move less. Smart, fast-paced growth that is no longer dependent on major infrastructure investments. How to make this happen? Active pedestrian streets complete with grand building entrances, multifunctional podiums and privately owned public spaces (POPS) set the context as the towers above step back from the street.

The dynamism of Toronto’s urban planning is more impressive than the results at this moment. That said, there is hope. Regent Park is a work in progress, where heights can be manipulated over time to allow for a smarter and more organic distribution of density, delivering flexibility, dynamism and optimism. The West Donlands, bordering often uncompromising urban conditions, balances both grit and elegance in creating a new kind of city vibe in the east end, one block at a time. There is a certain rawness about how Toronto still feels even with all its “high riseness”. As if this new form of urban coolness questions the need to have a city feel finished or complete. This sense of rawness is maybe something that Amsterdam can learn from.

Toronto attempts to capitalize on its rapid growth by allowing it to happen wherever and however. Although subject to increasingly strict design guidelines, in practice Toronto has zoning rules and bylaws that everyone ignores. The resulting urban development comes off as opportunistic and lacking the attention to and quality of public space often found in Europe. 

That said, it’s clear that “Toronto the Good” is doing its best to become “Toronto the Better”. 

Chicago the comeback city

Chicago wants to restructure and redistribute. While Toronto appears to have embraced the future, Chicago still holds on to the past. Our first takeaway was that the traditional image of Chicago – as a gritty industrial metropolis carved into ethnically defined enclaves – remains. Chicago, home of the skyscraper, is a city of autonomous towers with probably the most beautiful collection of 20th century buildings ever. After many years of decline Chicago is now a metaphorical comeback city.

But in America people are not paid to plan cities, they are paid to develop them. That said, it is impressive how even during times of modest growth, Chicago’s strategy for restructuring through redistribution allows developers to utilize the river’s edge as a new recreational frontier and in exchange give 5% to other areas of the city – a commendable policy. 

New city dwellers value residences with big city views and a full complement of building amenities. Individual parking is not high on the list. To its credit, Chicago has prioritized building what is most attractive for its new urban pioneers – where it matters most. The city is surprisingly affordable for young people who simply want to rent downtown and walk to work, or buy property in up-and-coming neighbourhoods close to transit hubs.

Chicago’s comeback is rooted in a typical packaging formula for mixed use that exists in virtually all new buildings under development. Hotels on the ground and lower floors, with housing on the upper floors, seems to work best. This is coupled with extensive outdoor space on roofs, which contain collective and publicly accessible amenities. Meanwhile parking is located between the 3rd and 7th floors, as part of the integral building design: this is, after all, the city of the Marina towers.

Vancouver the city of millionaires

In Vancouver news of the recent property transfer tax, aimed at foreign buyers, could not overshadow the fact that every homeowner has become a millionaire. Even though protected view corridors preserve vistas by restricting building heights, the city continues to grow in areas where prices are rising fastest. 

Everyone is looking at Vancouver. It feels as if the tower and podium combination of “Vancouverism” has become a dreamy urban planning brand that every city in the world, including Amsterdam, wants to copy.

Vancouver is putting its money into more West End development, spread over a 30 year urban build-out plan. What’s new is the implementation of development levies that will add to the city’s much needed public amenity fund. As rental over ownership becomes an ever more popular choice, can this be an incentive for more public amenities instead of just real estate speculation?

Vancouver’s next big project is a new subway and corridor plan as a means of increasing development through medium size urban blocks. The city’s challenge is to synchronize the need for rapid transit with rapid population growth. Its new corridor housing typology is allowing Vancouver to rethink its limited supply of tall and small housing options through mid-rise “main street” development. 

Is Vancouver too good to be true? According to urban blogger Brandon Donnelly (see Too much of a good thing, page 33), there is a danger that formulaic planning metrics, by stamping out oddly ingenious but often illegal spaces, can sterilize a city and make it boring. What is density when you don’t have the urbanity to also shake things up a bit?

Amsterdam XL

So what can Amsterdam bring home from this trip? 

Vancouverism’s spread out skyline with an active ground plane, where the tower is not directly visible from the street, is something Amsterdam can adopt. Likewise, how Toronto capitalizes on growth, together with its raw energy, can be an example to Amsterdam for the massive (but also healthy) level of building production it needs. And Chicago told us to not forget the power of innovative architecture as a place maker. 

Amsterdam is for many people a metropolis with the size and feel of a village. But that reality is changing faster than we think. Tourism in Amsterdam is growing at an annual rate of 5%, reaching an astonishing 23 million visitors in 2025. The city’s population is also expanding as never before, with over 12,000 people arriving every year, resulting in housing production of 6,000 to 8,000 dwellings per year. 

These are big numbers for Amsterdam and the question remains: how will Amsterdam grow? Has the city reached the point where it can no longer carry on as before? Is Amsterdam ready for this metropolitan scale jump?

High rise, with it’s small carbon footprint, low car ownership and stacked amenities, is increasingly seen as an attractive urban living model for the city. Such an approach, however, will be no easy sell in Amsterdam. But if there is one thing the city can learn from its big city sisters in North America, it is that Amsterdam needs to write its own book on high-rise and rapid urban growth. Starting this book alone could kick start a revolution that builds the world’s first tiny big city.

The Sluisbuurt Project

The purpose of the Dutch study trip was to learn from key North American cities in preparation for the planning of a high-density, high-rise community in Sluisbuurt on Zeeburgereiland in Amsterdam – a new urban neighbourhood whose unique location on the IJ has earmarked it for a stunning high rise residential development, providing housing that the city desperately needs. 

As part of the City of Amsterdam’s 2040 Structure, the Sluisbuurt is slated to comprise up to 5,500 homes and 100,000 m2 of mixed use development. A thoughtful composition of towers rising from 30 meters (9 stories) to 143 meters (48 stories) will form an urban ecosystem for vertical living. Planning is to be completed by 2025.

The Sluisbuurt wants to be known as a cycle city and a new cycle bridge to the Eastern Docklands will provide an optimal connection to Amsterdam’s main cycle network. The focus on the bicycle as the primary mode of transport forms the basis of a bike-based neighborhood where car ownership is radically reduced compared to other parts of the city. The area plan is being completely developed under the “rain proof’” principle that includes use of green façades and roofs, an extensive water canal system, and a network of public space, all of which helps contribute towards a good quality of life. UC


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