Skyscrapers Are Not What’s Going To Save The City

Ed Glaeser’s book Triumph of the City has launched a highly salutary discussion of the virtues of cities. But while it is full of excellent points, Triumph of the City goes off track in its prescriptions by giving the idea that the answer to the density issue is to build skyscrapers. In making that unwarranted leap, Glaeser has risked undermining the impact of his book as a whole. This is a pity, as the core message of Triumph of the City is one that needs to be well understood.

Restrictive rules that conspire to prevent dense building and the system of subsidies for suburban living that has been set up in the United States are huge issues for our society. But perhaps the fact that these issues lack sex-appeal has led Glaeser to dedicate significant space to an enthusiastic but curiously unreasoned apologia of the skyscraper.

The sound-bite of the book, especially for those who will never read it, is given in the title of the excerpt published in The AtlanticHow Skyscrapers Can Save the City. It’s catchy, but unfortunately untrue – building skyscrapers will not in any way save the city. On the contrary, building a few skyscrapers and continuing to ignore the essence of our urban problem would only worsen the issue that Glaeser has tackled in this book.

Lower Manhattan, showing One World Trade Center under construction

What makes cities great is that they are places where lots of people live close together. The benefits of cities that Glaeser describes at length – the dynamic intellectual environment, the catalyst of entrepreneurship, the environmental benefits – come from density, not from any specific type of building.

Population density of selected urban entities (in population per square kilometer)

When we look at the picture of density in the world’s cities, it is easy to see that the issue facing humanity as a whole is not whether any particular narrowly-defined area has a stratospheric density of Kowloon or Mumbai’s City District. The issue is the long tail of sparsely-populated urbanized areas that consume vast amounts of land and cause wasteful lifestyles.

The problem in the U.S. is that we tolerate – in fact our approach to the regulations and economics of buildings actively works to guarantee – extreme low density, even in locations close to our city centers. If we could get our urbanized areas to the density of places like Paris, Nakano, Barcelona and Brooklyn – with or without skyscrapers – it would make a huge difference.

Paris, with only one building greater than forty stories within its city limits and only a handful of zones with residential high-rises, provides an interesting example of a high-density city.

Paris: An Example of a High-Density Urban Environment

The city of Paris has a density of 98 people per acre, making it among the densest cities in Europe and North America. Paris’s density is multiples greater than the density of 20 people per acre typical of a U.S. downtown. Even Manhattan, at 112 people per acre, has only slightly higher population density than Paris despite being considerably smaller in surface area. At Paris’s density, you could fit almost the whole population of the state of Florida in the five boroughs of New York City, or you could fit the population of Canada in the territory of Greater London.

Paris’s density didn’t happen by accident. Paris was rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century, under a political regime that wanted to densify the city not only for urban reasons, but also as an economic stimulus. There were height regulations and some other restrictions, but overall the government actively put in place a system that would free massive amounts of land with few regulations preventing high levels of density in order to fuel a building boom, which promptly took place. The boulevards were explicitly designed to create rapid connections between all the city’s neighborhoods; the Paris Métro network was added a few decades later. The city limits were pushed back in order to allow the development of new areas. Public initiatives like the Parc Monceau and the place de la République were launched with the objective of catalyzing private real estate development.

The whole mechanism launched in Second Empire Paris was designed to build basically the most dense urban environment achievable before the widespread use of the elevator. Since that time Paris has not always been a model of dynamic urban management, but the city remains an example of a high-quality, high-density urban environment without skyscrapers. Today new issues of density in Paris have arisen – I will discuss these in an upcoming post.

The Shard, Irvine Sellar's Monument to His Own Audacity (note the height of the surrounding buildings)

Glaeser’s defense of the skyscraper comes from the perspective of the economist, but in his rhetoric of “gleaming spires” one senses a fascination with the skyscraper as an object of wonder. Where he abandons the terrain of economic reason for what seems to be a personal bias for a specific built form is where Glaeser weakens his case.

My discomfort with skyscrapers comes precisely from the fact that they so often defy economics. We have too many examples of skyscrapers built for reasons that have nothing to do with either economic need or constructive inputs to the form of the city, but as symbols of bravura. Throughout history skyscrapers have often been outlets for the hubris that drive powerful people to do dumb things. Skyscrapers by nature skirt the terrain where hormones defeat reason.

An example of the results of the fixation on the skyscraper is the Hermitage Plaza project for Paris, in which a Russian developer is building two Norman Foster-designed towers by the Seine at La Défense. Hermitage Plaza is just going to be a huge marker, a symbol of the power of the showy developers from a resource-rich and currently culture-poor country, another indifferent application of slick corporate design standards to one of the world’s great cities.

Rendering of Hermitage Plaza towers, Paris

Despite the unconvincing nods toward an urban planning rationale for the project, there is no real reason to build so high in this location. The project description essentially says as much in its references to European height records and the Eiffel tower. I wonder how an economist like Glaeser would deconstruct what is going on: Has the Russian developer really seen an economic opportunity that no developers with experience in the local market have seen and is acting as a rational economic agent to capitalize on it? Or is it a simple case of having more money than sense?

Where skyscrapers make sense, it is often – other than some cases where geography poses real limitations – precisely because man-made causes prevent the more general liberation of building rights. Hence we get the situation we see in many American cities, where you can walk a couple of blocks from a skyscraper and find one story buildings and vacant lots. In these cases the creation of a small zone where people can build super-high actually contributes to low density in the city overall.

There is an interesting symmetry, in that the systematic recourse to suburbs is the consequence of a set of economic mechanisms and legal dispositions that ultimately crumbles under the weight of its own dysfunctionalities, while small zones of hyper-localized density are the consequence of another set of economic mechanisms and legal dispositions in society that generates a different set of dysfunctionalities. A recent blog post by Kenneth Hitchens describes planning dysfunctions defying reason that come out of the current fad of large-scale urban developments based on marketing towers.

An irrational love-affair with the skyscraper can be as bad as the irrational refusal of density. We need to avoid both extremes in favor of planning regulations and incentives that favor good, hearty, high-density cities.

6 thoughts on “Skyscrapers Are Not What’s Going To Save The City”

  1. Agreed, it’s difficult to imagine Glaeser pulling a “Plan Voisin” for Paris any time soon.

    The skyscraper fetish is indeed exactly that. In January I looked at the unhealthy fascination with these beasties, but from the point of view of GDP (

    A follow-up question to your article, Stephane: What will the neighborhood of La Défense look like 25 or 50 years from no, when it will be likely bristling with these things? Will it create a destabilizing effect on the rest of the Parisian urban fabric, either in terms of aesthetics or economics?

  2. Interesting view here – thanks! We wonder what the population density of downtown Charleston is? (And we like the caption under the pic of the giant glass box: “The Shard, Irvine Sellar’s Monument to His Own Audacity” – tee hee!)

  3. I’m glad you liked the piece. I haven’t got the figures for downtown Charleston, but I’m certainly interested as to how people in Charleston and elsewhere think about these issues. Especially where there are signs of acceptance of densification as opposed to the ordinary reaction of resistance.

  4. One comment I received in response to this post was someone who did not understand what I meant when I wrote that skyscrapers “so often defy economics.” Perhaps this article about the Freedom Tower from will help clarify:

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