Edward Swernofsky


A Scalable Urban Design and the Single Building City

Thanks again for your input!


OK, I might not understand what you're saying here. I agree that this is the primary issue people raise and that means this isn't discussed enough, but I figured that would dominate the article if I focused on it.

A few things... Circulating air even from all the way outside is a lot cheaper and easier to deal with than the sunlight issue, so fresh air is really not a huge issue.

You mention "worst neighborhoods" near the ground implying there is a section of the city where crime is high, but there are no streets near the bottom: Any poor people living below are living in a small space accessible by stairs or elevators directly from the streets at the top.

Idk if this is complete, but here's a capitalist argument: People vote with their feet. They can always live further out and commute in. If the conditions are actually worse than another place, poorer folks will try it out and leave to enjoy life somewhere more reasonable. If the full negative sunlight/window economic externalities caused by putting up a new building are assessed and charged to the new owner (I should include this), the owner won't build if he (and others) can't get enough return on the lower sections. If people don't like not having sunlight and they're still there, maybe it's legitimately worth it to them? For example, maybe they're earning way more money than they would otherwise.

Indeed you mention dense thin rows of buildings, but doesn't it change the whole calculus here? And more or less turns this into a Manhattan with underground car tunnels, or something close to it? I'm also not quite convinced this approach will work that well even in California, in the sense of making people happy with their view. Plus, when there's a lot of another problem arises with these shafts - they heat up very quickly without wind. Yes, ventilation, but that costs money and I don't think I've ever seen such a "ventilated courtyard", so probably nontrivial amount of money.

I think dense thin rows of buildings can still achieve very high per-floor area ratios, maybe 2/3 or so, allowing most of the ridiculously high density Manhattan doesn't come close to. View can probably be included in the negative externalities charged to new construction. Hot air rises, giving a free ventilation force. Just want to note here that moving this amount of air with fans really isn't that expensive anyway.

What about truck noise?

Yeah, 50 ft is just the figure I found. Trucks would also likely be going slower than 30 mph. "For every doubling of distance, the sound level reduces by 6 decibels." Soundproofing is a combination of reflection and absorption; Add absorption materials to reduce echos. People live next to streets with trucks using them already, right?


Fair enough, how about pushing snow into chutes or tubs and having trucks ship it out? Or throw it into the trash AVAC system?

Robo delivery theft

Tbh fast response times, dash cams, high use streets, and police should be enough to handle this even with mixed traffic, although the separated infrastructure pays for itself readily in robot speed and throughput. Navigation can be done either with paint and optical sensors, magnetic markers, or fixed digital broadcasts from frequent points.

Seeing Like a State

OK, the point I'm trying to make here is that these critiques apply as much to existing suburbs and cities as they do here in the sense that: Centralized systems like mass transit, utilities, and emergency services are everywhere. Regulations and codes around building and transportation are everywhere. Government spending on centralized systems and many more things is also everywhere. The amount of top down planning used in existing municipalities is already quite high, and I think this about matches it, not being notably more other than just actually addressing super-high density development. I just don't think the comparison to master-planning is actually reasonable.

If anything this design moves more things from a flat "no, everything has to be this way" to a "sure if it's actually worth it" approach to regulation. I'm sure there are things about peoples' preferences I'm not aware of here, and it's important to make things a little flexible and open to later change because of that. However, I'm not sure you have a better understanding, either. Existing systems have made the decision for us on a lot of matters and may realistically not have a lot of reason to those decisions.

A Scalable Urban Design and the Single Building City

Well, the Charter Cities Institute is trying to help make stuff along these lines happen, but they're probably not as interested in super-high density things. I've heard Singapore tends to have better urban planning than other countries. Many European countries and Japan have nice train systems, but still have a lot of cars as well.

A Scalable Urban Design and the Single Building City

First, I want to thank you for thinking critically about this. I appreciate your efforts and line of reasoning.

Poor people tend to want sunlight more and are less able to afford it here.

So first, note that this is correlation and not a direct relationship. I'd love to see a study here.

I think this also is mostly resolved by the market: Poor people wanting sunlight will live more crowded in sunlit sections. Middle class people not needing sunlight will live further down in less crowded conditions. Rich people will just pay the premium and live in spacious conditions with sun.

If sunlight turns out to be a huge constraint, it reduces maximum density considerably but still allows for densities multiple times the densest cities we see today.

Columns of outside don't work in high latitudes for people that want sunlight.

I next mention dense thin rows of buildings lining streets. The streets would be north/south to handle this.

You need streets with not much shade for some climates.

Yeah, the streets with shade thing is just an example to show walkability in nice climates. I agree you can't do all of these in such climates, and that may make them poor choices to starting such a city there.

What happens if you need to rebuild something on the 3rd floor underneath a walking street?

You can have thinner walking streets supported by the buildings to the side as well as the roof of the building supporting it, but in general you may have to shut down that street when rebuilding it.

How far can cranes reach anyway?

Typically 230 ft, so ideally you have a grid of crane points spaced so half the diagonal is that distance. With a square grid that gives 320 ft between adjacent grid points. You can either space streets to line up with this grid or the grid will be more constrained somehow.

Police and medical need to move quickly; fire and medical need to carry stuff.

Police, fire, and medical can still use truck lanes to carry a bunch of stuff quickly in an emergency. 15 mph is faster when things are much closer together. Elevators can bring them with equipment to the street level, where so long as their equipment is relatively lightweight, it can still be electrically powered and easy to move.

What about maneuvering fire hoses outside high floors?

You can use the building across the street, ladders on the outside of that building, extendable emergency bridges, something like a really tall maneuverable ladder that attaches to rails on another building, or a helicopter with a platform dangling from it.

What about truck noise and air pollution?

Heavy trucks are about 80 db at 50 ft going 30 mph. I think soundproofing a 60 db reduction isn't that expensive, maybe $2 / sq ft of wall in the US? Since the air pollution is concentrated in one area, you can use air filters to get rid of most of it. Ventilation is also a lot cheaper than full HVAC.

Drainage system failure effects are multiplied.

Yeah, you either need very good drainage reliability and throughput or this won't work in certain climates.


I'm not too sure about this; maybe salt the streets or use airplanes to blanket everything in salt? Maybe heat smaller sections and have people push snow into those sections? Also, you can still have some space on streets or roofs for heavy machinery in exchange for higher construction costs for that part of the roof.

Cities stink and higher density multiplies this.

So, crowding is the same. I don't think either of us knows the exact causes of city stink, which would be helpful here. Air filters and ventilation should help address this.

Parking lanes are necessary to prevent failures from blocking traffic.

This depends a bit on how close you need parking to be in the case of failure. There's still some parking, and even a parking lane can be filled with cars, as is usually the case in Manhattan. I imagine the solution here is adding paid parking spots until this is not a huge issue or having low latency towing.

Robo delivery theft

If robots are in a fully enclosed tube, it's still pretty hard to just take one. The robots can also communicate position and video live with a computer system and the city can respond quickly if something is off.

transport accessibility

This already isn't an issue with trains. Lightweight electric wheelchairs shouldn't be an issue on the street. A few ramps at changing street levels can accommodate forced street level transitions.

rooftop HVAC street/park pollution

Air filters and lower surface area help a lot with stink and cooling here. Piping ventilation from buildings under streets through side buildings should help with concentrating this into parks. From there, concentrating HVAC units on rooftops minimizes interaction with walking space. You can also do most of the heating/cooling with ground-based heat pumps to reduce these units entirely to huge fans.

This creates a whole lot of new infrastructure every new building needs to be plugged into, as well as new requirements (ability to support extra weight, noise insulation), which makes new development a lot more expensive.

Definitely more expensive; However, I don't think it's that much more: Noise insulation is pretty cheap. The extra weight supported here is the same eventual overall weight. Again, this expense is borne when it becomes worth it anyway.

Seeing Like a State

*Note: I've also only read Scott's post.

This is important and I want to address this further. Note that the design here doesn't say "here's exactly how the buildings are laid out and what they're used for", nor "we're designing for this fixed density". Furthermore, the design is not a whole lot different in scope from what we see today in many suburbs and cities. Grids are pretty common, and Jane Jacobs (sort of the antithesis of Le Corbusier, the father of Brasilia's design) basically thinks they're great (and a lot better than suburb culdesacs). A grid is fine in optimal conditions, and if the terrain and environment make that a dumb idea just drop the grid and design around the terrain. It's not critical to have a perfect grid or anything.

A Scalable Urban Design and the Single Building City

Just want to first note that most of the proposed things require no innovation either.

Multistory buildings (also regulated away in most suburbs) adds ~25% to construction costs. Jane Jacobs also mentions parks being much better if they're on the way to things, and the ratio of park even today doesn't approach the scale portrayed. Also want to note that suburbs only exist in a few countries.

poor people create more externalities

Poor countries with cities still exist, and many seem to be getting along well enough (at least getting richer over time). If it's not that I guess my intuition goes the other way. I imagine police stepping up militance to combat some of these things can work. If discrimination is legitimately a good solution to some urban issues, I'd at least be surprised, but it should still work with the other things here.

suburbs seem really appealing to families who want more space

The housing market should generally address this. There's will certainly eventually be parts of the city topped out in density, but until then if space becomes valuable the market will eat that value by making more space. Families can always live in less dense (but still city-density) sections a little further out.