With City Council members struggling to come to an agreement on building heights in downtown Ann Arbor, the split seems to be between those who feel that Ann Arbor is plagued by the threat of monolithic skyscrapers blotting out the sun and those who feel that any opposition to development projects is economically unviable. But city zoning projects such as the Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown (A2D2) proposal are more than just about mixing pastoral living with a vibrant downtown culture. The way we design our cities has a massive effect on cultural understanding and on the health of both residents and the environment.

Making urban growth viable for smaller communities can be challenging, but the issues are anything but new. In the 1916 New York building code, skyscrapers could only use a certain percentage of their lot’s space as they climbed higher, and buildings tapered inward to allow more light to filter down to street level. Conservative solutions like that, along with making sure buildings are spaced far apart enough to allow light to filter to the street, improve the pedestrian quality of a downtown area. Beyond that, investors shouldn’t set up a gargantuan tower in a small community — having a local Tower of Babel isn’t going to win brownie points with the local population.

Suburban sprawl in smaller communities also promotes greater socioeconomic divide. Neighborhoods that are driving distance away from each other are prone to segregation along socioeconomic, racial or cultural lines. When inadequate housing is available near city centers, the poorest people are often forced to live farther toward the outskirts of a community, facing longer and more expensive commutes. Building up in city centers creates more affordable housing, gives people the opportunity to be within sight of a variety of different backgrounds and promotes a culture of understanding and a unique local culture. Those who long for backyards and quiet can still have those things — at the cost of direct access to the downtown area. But it becomes a choice, not a necessity.

Multi-story apartments of modest size located close to most conveniences can significantly reduce the car culture because they promote biking and walking as primary means of transportation. These might seem like simple energy reduction arguments, but they also affect the health of residents. Encouraging walking and biking around town improves air quality and gives residents more exercise than communities that require car or bus travel. Physical health improves with more exercise and better air quality, which subsequently lowers healthcare and insurance costs. More pedestrians also reduce safety risks for those going out alone at night.

In an urban community, green design can enhance the well-being of citizens by making indoor spaces more livable. Better lighting and use of space in residential and commercial buildings promotes greater productivity and mental health. Apartment living with well-designed buildings also cuts down on water, electrical consumption, lighting and cooling costs. Besides lower water consumption from lawns, apartments with more efficient climate control and insulation save considerable energy. By ensuring that there is ample green space within walking distance of urban areas, there is a quality of life and sense of community.

Ann Arbor and cities around the country have struggled to strike a balance between established communities and future downtown growth. With concerns over quality of life and environmental impact growing, cities should be more accepting of urban development. While ostentatious skyscrapers are probably not the answer for smaller cities, 18- and 20-story buildings are a modest addition to urban communities and promote closer communities.

A developer looking to build up in the heart of cities like Ann Arbor should work with the City Council to determine what fits the population’s demands the best. But limitations on maximum height are a disservice to the city as a whole. No one should expect a downtown area to turn into Manhattan overnight. Changes generally take a lot of time — even more so under economic conditions like the ones we face right now. Ann Arbor will only become a metropolis if its population fights to create that reality.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.

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