In the shadows of booming cities, a tension between sunlight and prosperity (Emily Badger, Washington Post)

New York City 2004 (from Empire State bldg)

New York City in 2004

This article, “In  the shadows of booming cities, a tension between sunlight and prosperity” (in Manhattan) from May 2015 highlights some issues with tall buildings, shadows, views, and access to the sky and sun — crucial issues for property values and quality of life in cities.

Perhaps this is a topic where B.C. municipalities should do some research and develop policies and legislation — sooner rather than later. This article introduces some policy approaches to regulate shadows and buildings in other cities. In Japan, there have been cases where tower developers pay compensation to neighbours if they are going to block access to sunlight. Whether this is voluntary or legislated, it might be worth examining “enlightened” policies around the world. Who in B.C. will take the lead on these topics.

Below are just some excerpts of the article. Please see the original link for the full text.


In the shadows of booming cities, a tension between sunlight and prosperity (by Emily Badger, Washington Post, 4-May-2015)

NEW YORK—“Billionaires’ Row” is rising over midtown, a collection of glassy new pinnacles that promise the kind of condo views you can only get in Manhattan by building taller than everything else around.

With its $95 million penthouse, 432 Park Avenue tops out just shy of 1,400 feet. It will remain the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere until the Nordstrom Tower — high-end shopping below, lavish apartments above — goes up four blocks away. Between them are a few more audacious developments, all part of a race for ever-taller towers to distinguish luxury living in an increasingly crowded city.

These new buildings — a product of developer ingenuity, architectural advance and international wealth — are changing more than the city’s famous skyline, though. They will also transform New York far below, further darkening city streets and casting long shadows that will sweep across Central Park.

Together, these towers, and new additions in neighborhoods undergoing a building boom from San Francisco to Toronto to even low-rise D.C., have revived a long-simmering urban tension: between light and growth, between the benefits of city living and its cost in shadows.

For cities, shadows present both a technical challenge — one that can be modeled in 3-D and measured in “theoretical annual sunlight hours” lost — and an ethereal one. They change the feel of space and the value of property in ways that are hard to define. They’re a stark reminder that the new growth needed in healthy cities can come at the expense of people already living there. And in some ways, shadows even turn light into another medium of inequality — a resource that can be bought by the wealthy, eclipsed from the poor

“There are certain things you just can never go back from,” said Renee Cafaro, a longtime resident of the neighborhood just south of Central Park and a member of the local community board that’s been studying the shadows there. “Laws can be changed. Even trees and traffic patterns can be changed. But once you have buildings of that caliber and that height and that massing, there’s nothing we can do to save the park any more. Those shadows are there in perpetuity.”

..In New York, legislation was introduced in the city council this spring that would create a task force scrutinizing shadows on public parks. Lawmakers in Boston in the last few years have repeatedly proposed to ban new shadows on parkland, though they haven’t succeeded. In San Francisco, the city has tightened guidance on a long-standing law regulating shadows in an era of increasingly contentious development fights. In Washington, where the conflict arises not from luxury skyscrapers but modest apartments and rowhouse pop-ups, the zoning commission voted in April on rules that would prohibit new shadows cast on neighboring solar panels.

… “Parks have become the place where we go for this incredibly important experience of being in the sun,” says Mark Levine, the New York councilman who introduced the bill that now awaits public hearings. “And if even parks lose the sunlight, then I think it diminishes the experience of living of here.” 

Shades of inequality

New York City has been regulating shadows, if in an indirect way, for a century. When the 42-story Equitable Building was completed in Lower Manhattan in 1915 — rising from the sidewalk like the sheer face of a cliff for more than 500 feet — it cast a seven-acre shadow over the neighborhood.

The outcry it caused helped prompt the city’s first comprehensive zoning law. Those rules didn’t require buildings to cast shadows of a certain size, but they influenced the shape of skyscrapers in ways that controlled how they loomed over the city below. Tall buildings required “setbacks” at higher floors. This is why the Empire State Building grows narrower as it rises, why New York’s skyline looks like a collection of wedding-cake toppers. This is also what creates space and light between buildings that might otherwise rise shoulder to shoulder.

In Central Park today, the new generation of luxury towers on Billionaires’ Row reach higher than many in the city ever envisioned. The developers behind them merged multiple building lots or purchased the “air rights” above adjacent properties to legally build taller than what would historically be allowed. 

As a result, multimillion-dollar apartments in the sky will darken parts of the park a mile away. Enjoyment of the park while actually in the park — a notably free activity in a high-cost city — will be dimmed a little to give millionaires and billionaires views of it from above.

Since 1984, San Francisco has had a “sunlight ordinance” that requires the parks commission to review any proposed building taller than 40 feet that might shadow public parks. Last year, the planning department wrote new guidance on how developers must measure their shadow impacts with tremendous precision to comply with it.

First, they must hire shadow consultants to calculate how much theoretical sunlight, in square-foot-hours, a park would receive over a year if nothing were blocking it. The park is then modeled in 3-D with the buildings around it, taking into account how the sun moves over the course of the day and changes position over the year.

… In a model like this, it’s possible then to insert a new building and measure how the shadow load changes, maybe subtracting another few percentage points of theoretical sunlight. This is the number the parks commission in San Francisco then considers, alongside diagrams of where those shadows would fall.

Earlier this year, the commission rejected for the first time a new project: a six-story condo that would have increased shadow in the park nearby by less than 1 percentage point. That small number meant a loss of 42 minutes of sunshine on summer nights, on the basketball court and grassy knoll in the only multipurpose park in the neighborhood.

The bright side of shadows

Away from public parks, the issue grows even murkier: What about sidewalks, schoolyards, back yards and private rooftops?

This last area has become increasingly testy in Washington, where costly rooftop solar panels have spread alongside pop-ups in many residential neighborhoods. This spring, the city’s zoning commission voted to approve new rules on additions, including one that would prohibit them from shading nearby solar panels. If the rules are adopted, D.C. will join several cities that now have zoning laws protecting if not sunshine then at least “solar access.

Central Park in 2004

Central Park in 2004

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