Fly over Washington, D.C., today and you will see a vast panorama of mid-rise buildings punctuated by iconic architecture: the dome of the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, the National Cathedral, the clock towers of Georgetown University, to name a few. What you won’t see are skyscrapers and condo towers.

Unlike almost every other major American city, Washington does not have high-rise buildings. This is because the U.S. Congress established building height limits in 1910. The Height of Buildings Act set an absolute maximum height in the District of Columbia of 130 feet (40 m), except on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, where a height of 160 feet (49 m) is permitted.

Photo: NASA

Some are arguing that D.C. should lift its lid: that it should trade its distinctiveness for greater density, that floor/area ratio is more important than the city’s identity. We can look at the arguments for and against tall buildings in the nation’s capital; but first, let’s review the history of skyscrapers.

When Congress passed the height restrictions more than a century ago, tall buildings were relatively rare, not only in the United States but around the world. Until the 19th century, buildings taller than five or six stories were unusual because it was impractical for inhabitants to climb anything taller, and water pressure was insufficient to supply running water above a certain height.

In the United States, most of the early skyscrapers were in either Chicago or New York City, which competed with each other to build the tallest building. For many years, the American Surety Building in New York City held the title of tallest building, until it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building in 1930, and then the Empire State Building in 1931. That building held the title of world’s tallest for more than 40 years, until 1972 when it was surpassed by the World Trade Center, which was soon overtaken by the Sears Tower in Chicago. According to Wikipedia, the Sears Tower (now named the Willis Tower) held the title of world’s tallest building for 24 years, until it was surpassed by the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Today, the world’s tallest building is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which has 160 floors and tops out at 2,717 feet (828 m)—more than a half mile. It will soon be overtaken by an even taller building in Saudi Arabia.

Since the 1960s, the world has seen a surge in skyscraper construction. Shanghai, for example, has built more than 3,000 high-rise buildings since just 1988. Hundreds of other cities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America have followed suit. For thousands of years, all of the world’s cities were horizontal in character, but today, cities without skyscrapers are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Proponents of lifting the lid on D.C. buildings say the height limits are arbitrary and subjective. They also say tall buildings make efficient use of costly land and that the city needs to increase density in order to compete with the suburbs and provide more affordable housing. Finally, they say the height limits stifle architectural innovation. 

First of all, I will acknowledge that the futuristic skylines of cities like Dubai and Shanghai can be thrilling—at a distance. At street level, they are often dreadful. The glass-and-steel towers may be dramatic, but they seldom move the soul or the traffic as well as more human-scale, fine-grain buildings. One of the biggest problems with tall buildings has been a failure to consider how the structures meet the ground and affect the surroundings and street life in general.

I will also acknowledge that every city needs more compact, walkable, and dense development, but today, density is being promoted as an end in itself rather than as one means to building better cities. What’s more, we can achieve tremendous density without high rises. In their 2007 book Visualizing Density, authors Julie Campoli and Alex MacLean point out that before the invention of elevators, two- to four-story walk-up buildings were common throughout America. Constructing a block of these types of buildings can achieve density of anywhere from 20 to 80 units an acre (49 to 198 per ha).

Photo: Vince Kelley/Flickr
Mid-rise buildings ranging from five to 12 stories can create even higher-density neighborhoods in urban settings where buildings cover most of the block. Campoli and McLean point to Seattle, where mid-rise buildings achieve densities ranging from 50 to 100 units per acre (124 to 247 per ha)—extraordinarily high by U.S. standards. Kaid Benfield, a sustainable communities expert with the National Resources Defense Council, recently pointed out that D.C. is already much denser than many other large U.S. cities with skyscrapers, including Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, and Seattle.

In truth, many of America’s finest and most valuable neighborhoods achieve density without high rises. Georgetown and Capitol Hill in Washington, Park Slope in Brooklyn, the Fan in Richmond, and the French Quarter in New Orleans are all compact, walkable, charming, and low rise. Yet they are also dense: the French Quarter has a net density of 38 units per acre (94 per ha), and Georgetown’s density is 22 units per acre (54 per ha).

As for the affordable housing argument, building height has little to do with affordability. D.C. does have high-cost housing, but prices are even higher in skyscraper cities like New York and San Francisco. What’s more, visit any of the new residential towers in D.C. suburbs, such as Bethesda, Maryland, or Tysons Corner in Virginia, and you will see that virtually all these buildings are expensive high-end condos or apartments. The mayor of Rockville, Maryland, for example, recently told me that only 18 children live in the more than 500 units of new housing in Rockville Town Center. This is not only because the housing is expensive, but also because developers often will not construct multifamily buildings with more than two bedrooms.

The nation’s capital has been growing rapidly in recent years, so, the tall-building advocates say, D.C. needs high rises to accommodate the city’s population growth. The D.C. population in 1950 was more than 800,000 residents, and there were no high rises. Now, the population is about 625,000 residents, so why are taller buildings needed to accommodate fewer residents than the city had at its peak? Washington has lots of room to grow under current regulations. Among other redevelopment opportunities, the city should encourage the redevelopment of its estimated 30,000 vacant or abandoned lots.

While the proponents of high rises in D.C. will say that no one is arguing for super-tall buildings like those in China or the United Arab Emirates, once the lid is lifted, it can unleash irresistible pressure to build ever-taller buildings. This is exactly what happened in Philadelphia. Through most of the 20th century, a “gentleman’s agreement” prevented buildings from rising higher than the Philadelphia City Hall. The construction of One Liberty Place in 1987 broke the agreement, and City Hall was soon lost amid a cluster of many more skyscrapers, eclipsing the iconic building in height and prominence.

A similar situation has occurred in England, where Prince Charles criticized the “high-rise free-for-all” in London that has left the city with a “pockmarked skyline” and a degraded public realm. Today, massive skyscrapers called the “Gherkin” and the “Shard” crowd narrow medieval streets, where they loom over the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and other landmarks. Lifting the D.C. height limit will create a slippery slope from which there can be no turning back.

Photo: Christopher Bowns/Flickr
Today, Washington’s memorable skyline is accompanied by one of America’s strongest economies. Over the past decade, the city has become a magnet for both people and investment. New buildings, new residents, new neighborhoods, and new public spaces have brought energy and optimism. At street level, the city is uncommonly lively, and the public has embraced the historic building stock, the public transportation system, the walkable neighborhoods, and the city’s rich cultural amenities.

Visitors to Washington invariably comment on the city’s remarkable skyline and its bustling street life. Neither they nor the residents are clamoring for taller buildings. Washington should focus on building better rather than bigger. I would even argue that the economic expansion of the city to neighborhoods like North of Massachusetts Avenue (NoMa), Shaw, and Columbia Heights has been driven, in part, by the height limit, which means that the city must grow horizontally, not vertically. High-rise cities like Charlotte, Dallas, and Miami have tiny downtowns compared with D.C. precisely because in those cities one skyscraper can absorb all the demand that in D.C. is accommodated in numerous, separately owned mid-rise buildings.

As for architectural innovation, I would say that the prevailing transportable, one-size-fits-all skyscraper model has created a world of striking global homogeneity. Most tall buildings, whether the sculptural and iconic kind or the more common refrigerator boxes, seem to have been designed as disconnected, stand-alone, “isolationist” pieces with little regard for context or culture.

Over the past 50 years, the cityscapes of the world have progressed from unique to uniform, from stylized to standardized. Cities like Washington, St. Petersburg, Paris, and Rome stand out in a world where every place is coming to look just like every place else. “Distinctiveness” is a key concept in 21st-century economic development. If you cannot differentiate your city from any other city, you will have no competitive advantage. Joe Cortwright, a leading economic development consultant, says, “The unique characteristics of place may be the only truly defensible source of competitive advantage for cities.”

Place is more than just a location on a map. A sense of place involves a unique collection of qualities and characteristics—visual, cultural, social, and environmental—that provide meaning to a location. Sense of place is what makes Washington, D.C., different from other cities. But it is also that which makes our physical surroundings worth caring about.

Land use planners spend too much of their time focused on numbers—the number of units per acre, the number of cars per hour, the number of floors per building—and not enough time focusing on the values, customs, characteristics, and quirks that make a place cherished.

I love the skylines of New York, Chicago, and many other high-rise cities. But, I also love the skylines of the few remaining horizontal cities like Washington; Charleston, S.C.; Edinburgh; and Prague. It would be a tragedy to turn any of these remarkable places into tower cities. Density does not demand high rises. Glass-and-steel office towers are a dime a dozen in today’s world. Once a historic city like Washington succumbs to high-rise mania, many more towers will follow until the city becomes a carbon copy of every other city in the “geography of nowhere.” Going forward, I hope the decisionmakers in Congress and on the D.C. Council will consider this question: Do you think that new development should shape the character of the nation’s capital—or should the character of the nation’s capital shape the new development?