The importance of public realm when designing tall buildings / by Broadway Malyan

Asia Pacific director Ed Baker has presented a paper on the relationship between tall buildings and public realm at a leading international conference in Shenzhen, China.

His paper “Contextualising Tall Buildings to Avoid the Creation of Identikit Cities” opened Session 2D: Tall Buildings and Public Identity at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats (CTBUH) Annual Conference.

The main arguments of the paper are that many tall buildings are designed either to act as distinctive icons or to reflect international design trends, and most of the focus and budget goes into the engineering and materials of the building. 

By doing these things, there is a missed opportunity to complement the local culture. This, coupled with a lack of investment and design focus on the ground level, means that high quality, distinctive and accessible public realm is often not created. 

Commenting on this, Ed said: “Tall buildings address the need for density, which is highly important in Asia due to the rapid pace of urbanisation. It is essential to get these buildings right. Because of their scale they heavily impact on the local area from a visual standpoint and often become symbols of our cities.

“While focus is often on the building itself, the ability to create a successful sense of place integrated with its surroundings is based on what is delivered at street level. Dynamic, attractive public realm provides a break in the built environment, helping to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed in high density locations and providing a space for people to enjoy and interact with.”

He added that designing these environments offers a better opportunity to reflect the local culture in a way that is meaningful, through things like the choice of materials, greenery, street furniture, layout, colour, texture and use of artwork and sculpture.

Doing it in this way is more preferable as it helps to avoid towers which replicate the stylings of often smaller, cultural buildings at an enlarged scale, resulting in a poor imitation which is neither relevant nor contextual.   

These public spaces are an essential part of identity, and the paper criticised examples where tall buildings are developed at the expense of these places: “Unfortunately, we see instances where what is considered as public space is moved inside the building, for example in the form of a viewing deck or sky garden. This often replaces existing space in the city and access can be easily restricted, through opening times or entry fees”, said Ed.

“It happens at ground level too, where building owners have the legal rights over the land at the base of their tower. They can then influence things like the activities that are allowed in the space and the routes people can move around the city, through enforcement if necessary. Because of this, these spaces are not public in the true sense of the word and the building becomes disconnected from the community.”

Detailed research, community engagement, a robust planning policy and a strong relationship with the client can all help with the creation of distinctive environments. In addition, the paper suggested ten steps to delivering relevant spaces:

  1. Respect the context – new vs old, replacement vs retention
  2. Neighbourhood creation – diversity within short walks, places to rest and enjoy
  3. Programmed public realm – create reasons to enjoy public realm
  4. Easy pedestrian access 
  5. Create a safe and accessible environment
  6. Design to the local climate 
  7. Interconnected, multi-modal transport and movement options
  8. Human scale 
  9. Visual appeal in public spaces and quality design focused on placemaking
  10. Legibility – ensure that the place created is unique and relevant

A number of case studies were included in the paper, such as CIBIS Business Park in Indonesia, Bandar Malaysia, which is one end of the proposed High Speed Rail line linking Singapore and Malaysia, and TRX, a new financial district in Kuala Lumpur.

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