How skyscrapers can save the city, but flawed arguments can't

The latest issue of The Atlantic (February 2011) has a lengthy article asking the question: “Can skyscrapers save the city?” (by Edward Glaeser). Yes, this is the classic density vs. sprawl debate of New Urbanism, but its flawed arguments aren’t likely to win any converts.

 

The piece starts with a serviceable history of skyscrapers beginning with the ancient Babyloniansthrough it’s heyday in the early 20th century to a look at possible heights for future buildings. He even briefly discusses the discontents and their fears of tall buildings “blocking out their sunlight” (his advice: give them “a set amount of money” and tell them to move elsewhere). He rails against height restrictions and the government agencies appointed to control such matters (the same ones who are supposed to set the bribe amount from the neighborhood NIMBYs).

 

The main problem with Mr. Glaeser’s arguments is that rest on the assumption that people and businesses will rush into the building into the building as soon as it is completed begging for leases. Building a skyscraper is one thing, leasing it is quite another – especially in a bad economy. Without renters their building sits empty, and everyone’s time has just been wasted as the building disintegrates in foreclosure.

 

Not only that, but no matter how slick the ad is, no fancy building can realistically hope to compete with the idea of a owning a home with a white picket fence with a husband, wife, 2.5 kids and a dog in some people’s minds. This confounds urbanites, but some people actually like suburbia. It may be soul crushingly banal, but it gives them a sense of safety for their family.

 

The author and I agree that not every “historic” building can (or “should” be saved), but he seems to think we should raze every building under two stories to make room for the next mega-structure. There are companies out there that specialize in renovating older buildings for more modern uses, but sometimes progress is more important than forcing an expensive, tax-payer funded restoration of a vaguely significant (and boarded up) venue that may or may not be able to draw the very high paying tenants they were trying to attract in the first place.

 

We also agree that more options for housing are a good thing (as it forces rents to go down), but developers generally aren’t building fancy condos for low-income buyers. Sorry, the whole egalitarian concept of “rich people living alongside poor” is just a feel-good marketing sham. Contrary to Mr. Glaeser’s point, no matter how many spacious skyscrapers India builds the vast majority of people in Mumbai will still live in overcrowded slums (though you could probably use your bride money to buy a condo there and get your old job back!).

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Smart Growth, Transit Oriented Development, increased pedestrian safety, and even a few tall buildings, but unlike Mr. Glaeser, I don’t think skyscrapers are the only answer for what ails our cities.

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