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The importance of public realm when designing tall buildings
Ed Baker
17th October 2016

​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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

This is a summary of the paper “Contextualising Tall Buildings to Avoid the Creation of Identikit Cities”, which opened Session 2D: Tall Buildings and Public Identity at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats (CTBUH) Annual Conference 2016.

You can download it in full here.