Architecture of tall buildings and vertical urbanism

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Global urbanization is approaching 200,000 people a day. There is a dire need for new or extended cities of a million inhabitants every week, and this is driving simultaneous massive growth in hundreds of Asian cities. Urban sprawl isn’t sustainable anymore. We really have to change our paradigm and go vertical. Postwar Philippine cities adopted low density, low rise, urban sprawl ala Hollywood, Los Angeles. Asian cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai and Dubai developed vertical urbanism ala European cities like London, Paris, and American cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, the more sustainable cities today.

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Many fierce and long debates on the impact of tall buildings on the urban habitat and its effectiveness against combating climate change have been mediated by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), of which I am a Fellow and former Country Representative of the Philippines. The CTBUH is the world’s leading resource for developers, landowners, real estate practitioners, and professionals focused on the design and construction of tall buildings and future cities.

Tall buildings have been built and are now being built in areas where urbanization has seen a rapid increase and are still expected to increase. 2012 was a confirmation of the ascension of the Asian skyscraper cities. As the world continues to build taller, we must also look into the future of cities towards sustainable vertical urbanism.

Tall building in numbers
In the CTBUH 2012 World Conference held in China, some of the major questions discussed during the conference were: Are vertical cities the answer to climate change? Are they more sustainable? Can tall buildings truly reduce and harvest enough energy to become carbon-neutral? What is the full impact on the city and the lives of its inhabitants of developing skyward? Does the vertical city offer the best chance for human survival in our rapidly-populating, urbanizing, consuming, and resource dwindling world? Many of these questions were answered, but some of the questions lead to more questions due to lack of concrete studies to back it up.

The CTBUH has published numerous studies on the growing number of tall buildings around the world. In the last two decades, CTBUH observed, the world has seen a big growth spurt in the design and construction of tall buildings. The number of tall buildings has seen a dramatic shift from west to east. In 1990, 80 percent of the world’s 100 tallest were located in North America, while Asia was home to only 12 percent. But now the tables have turned. In CTBUH’s 2013 Tall Building Review, 45 percent of the World’s 100 Tallest are now located in Asia and the region now dominates in the number of completed 200 meters plus or taller buildings in 2013 at 74 percent, while North America only churned in 1 percent.

China remained the heavyweight and overall undisputed champion of tall-building construction. For 2013, 50 percent of the global 200 meters plus completed tall buildings are spread across 22 of its cities, becoming the tallest country in Asia and the world. And with good reason, as the Chinese population continues to grow and the strive towards being the world’s economic powerhouse.

Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, is the tallest building in the world. By 2020, the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, will be the tallest with more than a kilometer high megatall building. Most of the Tall, Supertall and Megatall Buildings by 2020 will be in Asia like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, China, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia.

The review does not just cover the number of tall buildings constructed, but also takes note of changes in the building function and structural material used. Although office buildings still dominate the list of 200 meters plus tall buildings completed in 2013 at 34% of the total, residential and mixed-use buildings come in close second, at 30% each. According to CTBUH, the reason why there has been a shift towards more residential and mixed-use buildings being built is mainly because residential floor plates tend to be much smaller than office floors—an advantage when subjecting materials to wind and other pressures high in the sky. It also requires less floor-area-consuming elevators and other vertical services to support the function.

Moreover, with vertical urbanism, cities are allowed a more efficient use of land and transit, shorter utility lines, and maximization on the use of water, sewreage, and drainage. Above all, it allows workers to be near their place of work, saving not only travel time, but their money as well. Where there are higher densities of jobs, you should have higher-density housing as well. In the Philippines, unfortunately, there is no integration between transportation planning, land use, and density in Metro Manila, resulting in unchecked urban growth and difficulty in people mobility.

“Private-led vertical urbanism in the Philippines,” a paper I presented in the 2012 CTBUH Conference, has been the prevailing trend in the last 30 years, evidenced by the increasing number of Central Business Districts (CBDs). In fact, Jones Lang Lasalle’s Research & Consultancy reported that there are eight emerging CBDs in Metro Manila alone: Metropolitan Business Park in Pasay, Asiaworld City and Aseana Business Park in Parañaque, Nuvali and Southwoods City in Laguna, Arca South in Taguig, Circuit Makati in Makati, and Capital Commons in Pasig. These CBDs will be built on the principles of vertical urbanism as an answer to the country’s continously growing BPO industry, public-private partnership and tourist influx.

Another eleven emerging business districts outside Metro Manila will be added to the roster: Clark Green City, Alvierra, GGLC, and Capilion in Pampanga; Atria Park Distric and Ilolilo City Center in Iloilo, Altaraza in Bulacan, Aboitizland Cebu, Citta de Mare, and South Reclamation Properties in Cebu; and Matina IT Park in Davao. All these business districts are expected not just to meet the growing favorable climate, but also towards sustainable long term growth.

Sustainable vertical cities
This year, China will again play host to the CTBUH World Congress. With the Theme, “Future Cities: Towards Sustainable Vertical Urbanism,” the conference hopes to drive thinking beyond just tall buildings, beyond a collection of disparate icons, but considering cities as a whole towards a vision of a connected, maximized, sustainable vertical urbanism. It is no longer enough to simply create buildings that minimize their environmental footprint, according to CTBUH. The harmonious urban whole of maximizing urban/building infrastructure, sharing resources, generating and storing energy, and looking for completely new ways to improve the building’s contribution to the city: physically, environmentally, culturally, and socially.

One of our projects will be exhibited in the conference this September as one of the case studies towards a sustainable, vertical city on the rise. The San Juan City project, which was also part of an exhibition organized by Aedes at Berlin in Germany last year, is an example on how congested Philippine cities should respond to climate change and its growing population. The project’s general focus is to make the public aware how the city’s urban landscape may be improved through disaster preparedness, improved urban mobility, vertical urbanism, introduction of mixed-uses, creation of new and potential urban centers, urban revitalization of the city’s waterfront, application of traffic management systems, and pedestrianization. The Smart City Plan hopes to transform San Juan from a vulnerable city into a sustainable smart city.

With a rapidly growing urban population that is expected to saturate Metro Manila and other cities in the world before 2021, architects, planners, engineers, landowners, developers, and government officials are rushing to meet the growing urban population without compromising sustainability. It is inevitable for our cities to build more tall buildings, and reforming a city towards vertical urbanism is a monumental task. “Each stratified horizon of a tower has an opportunity to draw from the characteristics of the city and external environment,” says CTBUH. “Wind, sun, rain, temperature, and urban grain are not the same through 360 degrees of plan or 360 meters of height, and our buildings need to both recognize, and draw opportunity from that.”

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