elevators * highrises * cities

Elevator design by the German engineer Konrad Kyeser (1405)

Last post, I mentioned the dire condition of elevators in Toronto’s aging highrises. (The United Way, a non-profit agency, is urging the city to create a Taskforce to address elevators.)

This got me thinking about the relationship between elevators and highrises.

“Tall buildings became possible in the 19th century, when American innovators solved the twin problems of safely moving people up and down and creating tall buildings without enormously thick lower walls,” according to Edward Glaeser, author of Triumph of the City, excerpted in the March 2011 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

But actually, the first mention of elevators in recorded history goes back over 2,000 years, when Roman architect Vitruvius, who reported that Archimedes built his first elevator probably in 236 BC. There are reports of elevators throughout the medieval ages, but the inventor of the modern elevator was American Elisha Otis, as he invented the safety brake for presented it in 1854 at New York’s Crystal Palace Exposition.

So “good highrises” rely on good elevators, and according to Glaeser, good cities rely on good highrises, as he argues that the “skyscaper can save the city”.

“Besides making cities more affordable and architecturally interesting, tall buildings are greener than sprawl, and they foster social capital and creativity.” he asserts in the Atlantic Monthly. “Yet some urban planners and preservationists seem to have a misplaced fear of heights that yields damaging restrictions on how tall a building can be. From New York to Paris to Mumbai, there’s a powerful case for building up, not out.”

And we take this argument further, along the lines of Doug Saunder’s phenomenal book Arrival City, that “good cities” can make a better planet. “Successful arrival cities create prosperous middle classes; failed arrival cities create poverty and social problems,” and Saunders urges us “to see the opportunity of these arrival cities. By providing citizenship, a chance to own property, education, transportation links, and good security, cities like Sao Paulo in Brazil, or Parla in Spain, local and national governments have succeeded in successfully integrating their migrants.”

It’s an argument for fixing the elevators.


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