Can Skyscrapers Save the City?

by | August 16, 2011 4 Urban Design + Planning

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s new book Triumph of the City provides interesting observations and insights into the workings of cities, but the book’s most notable (and controversial) argument is that regulatory constraints limiting building height and preserving historic districts have crippled cities in terms of their ability to provide affordable housing. An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to the merits of skyscrapers, and broadly calls for high-density towers as a strategy for providing much-needed affordable housing in urban areas. His argument is one of basic supply and demand: the fewer dwelling units available, the higher the price will be for housing. We must let go of our affinity for (and protection of) smaller, shorter neighborhoods and buildings, he argues, and embrace the skyscraper if we are to adequately address the rising cost of housing in urban areas. Accordingly, he criticizes development regulations that limit building height and preserve historic areas, which he argues make it difficult to build – consequently limiting supply and inflating housing costs.

Tokyo, Japan (photo by SERA's Tuan Vu)

Tokyo, Japan (photo by SERA’s Tuan Vu)

Glaeser points to Paris as an example, where building heights have been capped since the 19th century. “The modern desire to preserve Haussmann’s Paris has helped turn the affordable Paris of the past into a boutique city that can today be enjoyed only by the wealthy…. When places over restrict construction, they risk stagnation and steadily rising prices.” Say what you will about the beauty of Paris, Glaeser will tell you that that city’s limitations on new buildings (specifically, new tall buildings) has made Paris so unaffordable as to be out of reach for most middle-income earners. In contrast, he praises cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where skyscrapers and tall buildings have been fully embraced.

Typical mid-rise Parisian buildings juxtaposed next to the only tower in the central city (Tour Montparnasse). After the tower was built in 1972, skyscrapers were no longer permitted within Paris' central city.

Typical mid-rise Parisian buildings juxtaposed next to the only tower in the central city (Tour Montparnasse). After the tower was built in 1972, skyscrapers were no longer permitted within Paris’ central city.

While I understand the basic premise that a limit on supply (whether it be due to regulation or geographic constraints) will drive up price, his argument that Hong Kong level densities are the solution for urban housing affordability is somewhat muddied when one compares the actual cost of real estate in the world’s largest cities. According to Glaeser’s line of reasoning, cities with higher housing densities (i.e., those that have embraced the skyscraper) would seemingly be more affordable than their lower-density counterparts.

However, the world’s most expensive city in terms of the cost of real estate is Hong Kong, where real estate prices are 107% higher than the average prices in the ten other largest world cities (and 63% more expensive than in shorter, lower-density London, #2 on the list). Following Hong Kong and London (in order) are the skyscraper-friendly cities of Tokyo and Singapore, both with more expensive real estate than eight-story Paris (#5 on the list). It would seem then, that the embrace of the skyscraper by Asian cities has not impacted housing affordability to the degree that Glaeser espouses.

Housing Types for Families

Glaeser’s advocacy for the skyscraper as an approach for addressing housing affordability fails to consider the type of consumer that this strategy addresses. While high-rise living may be appealing to young singles, childless couples, and empty nesters, families with children are often less inclined to live on the 20th floor of a high-rise building. In fact, it has been noted that despite his advocacy for high-density living, the author (and father of three) has chosen to reside in suburban Boston, noting that it provides “more living space” and “spongy lawns for toddlers to fall on.”

Portland, Oregon's Pearl District. While the older areas of the Pearl District are primarily mid-rise, newer developments (particularly in the North Pearl District) are increasingly high-rise.

Portland, Oregon’s Pearl District. While the older areas of the Pearl District are primarily mid-rise, newer developments (particularly in the North Pearl District) are increasingly high-rise.

As Glaeser’s comments allude to, families typically require (and desire) more space (and storage) than can be affordably accommodated in a high-rise downtown apartment, and it is often extremely difficult to find affordable units (even in large, new towers) that are large enough for a family of three or four (or more). This is not to say that high-rise buildings cannot be designed to be more attuned to the needs of families with children, however, there is often little incentive for developers to provide larger, family-sized units, given that the per square foot return on a studio or one-bedroom unit will always be greater than for a two- or three-bedroom unit. Outside of any local government programs incentivizing the construction of family-sized units in new high-rise buildings (as called for in the City of Portland’s North Pearl District Plan), large-family sized units will always be less abundant than smaller one and two-bedroom units, and as such, are likely to remain prohibitively expensive to all but the highest earners.

Furthermore, my hunch (which Glaeser’s comments help to affirm) is that families will always prefer housing with accessible yard areas for children to play over high-rise living. Medium-density, ground-related housing types (such as townhouses) may therefore be key in helping to maintain or increase urban densities to transit and service-supportive levels while providing an attractive housing option for families with children. I might argue, then, that an affordability strategy that seeks to retain families in the city should not be unilaterally focused on high-rise towers, but rather, should place some value on the shorter, medium density (and more human-scaled) housing types that Glaeser would have displaced by the skyscraper.

Mid-rise London

Mid-rise London

Singapore (photo by Han-Ying Lee)

Singapore (photo by Han-Ying Lee)

Shanghai (photo by Han-Ying Lee)

Shanghai (photo by Han-Ying Lee)


  1. Jeremy Jones says |

    Thanks for digging into this topic. You have pointed out something that repeatedly hampers Ed Glaeser’s work – a slavish adherence to conclusions based on econometrics. He sings the praises of towers, even as he personally avoids them. The development case is poor for quality, affordable dwellings that support family needs, but somehow they’re still the great hope for the future. In essence, Glaeser looks backwards at a raft of statistics that fails to consider the basics of human nature and, worse, have little bearing on a carbon-challenged future. While supply-demand logic tells us one thing, human logic tells us another – a great point that you’ve made here.

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