Jason M. Barr is a professor of economics at Rutgers University–Newark and author of Cities in the Sky: The Quest to Build the World’s Tallest Skyscrapers (to be released on May 14). He spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly.

What is it about skyscrapers that fascinates us, on the one hand, and drives some of us away, on the other?

Walking over the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan, one cannot help but be awed by Lower Manhattan’s skyline. The feeling is similar when standing along the Bund in Shanghai, looking at the Pudong skyline, or viewing Hong Kong’s skyscrapers from Victoria Peak. Collectively, the structures’ grandeur and monumentality bring us amazement and joy.

And because tall buildings are more than places to work and live—they are symbols of our collective achievements—we create stories and myths about them. We recount how impresarios battled for the world’s tallest building, how the fearless riveting gangs erected the giant steel frames, and how developers plotted, schemed, and strategized to acquire choice lots. These stories help forge our identities, give us a sense of place, and tie us to the history of the city.

However, they can produce unintended consequences, such as shadows on the street or feelings that they are overwhelming. And some buildings are just plain ugly. In the twenty-first century, many residents believe that tall buildings drive gentrification, income inequality, and housing unaffordability (though the truth is more complex). The failures of modernist planners’ tower-in-the-park style neighborhoods have generated a second parallel trope: high-rise living is bad for us.

The truth is that tall buildings are a necessity for modern cities. The key is to learn from past mistakes to ensure that all our buildings and neighborhoods are as good and vital as they can be.

Your chapter on China and its “skyscraper fever” contains many fascinating stories and findings, including a study of yours showing a connection between the number of corruption cases in a city and the number and height of its skyscrapers. Could you talk a little about that study and about China’s boom/bust cycle with skyscrapers in general?

In 1978, when the Chinese government initiated economic reforms, there was no such thing as private property. The state or state-owned enterprises owned all urban land. In the early 1980s, the central government established the City of Shenzhen to be China’s window to the world. Party cadres were sent there to experiment with market reforms.

Officials had to figure out how to establish a land market, but the idea of creating private property was problematic within the Communist Party’s Marxist ideology. After touring Hong Kong, Shenzhen officials adopted Hong Kong’s land-lease system, which was soon employed countrywide. All urban land was to be owned by the respective municipalities, and officials would lease the land-use rights through long-term ground leases (which could, in turn, be resold). In this way, the Communist Party would both own the land and create a means to develop it.

Since local officials have a monopoly over land allocation, this encouraged particular actions. Chinese officials realized they could use the land leases to fund infrastructure development. Thus, land sales and infrastructure development mutually reinforce each other. As a result, officials frequently sell the leases to developers for housing ahead of a city’s natural demand, generating tremendous housing gluts.

Because local officials can dictate the terms of the leases and how they are sold, they could secretly negotiate with developers to receive kickbacks or other illegal perks. Thus, they had an incentive to promote large projects with tall buildings to generate personal benefits. However, when President Xi came to power in 2012, he instituted a program to reduce this type of corruption. Using data on reported corruption cases against local officials, my coauthor Jingshu Luo and I found that cities with more corruption cases also had more skyscrapers. The country is now trying to climb out of a burst real estate bubble.

You express optimism that we’ll eventually see a mile-high building. What are the benefits of such structures? Is there a point of diminishing returns to the quest for height?

First, we need to understand the long-run trajectory of building heights. The height of the tallest building completed each year globally since 1900 has grown at an average annual rate of 1.2 percent. Since 1980, when Asian nations entered the skyscraper scene, the average rate has increased to 1.8 percent per year. Using this latter figure, the height doubling time is, on average, 39 years. In 1900, the tallest buildings were generally 100 meters (328 feet). By 1960, 250-meter (820 feet) supertalls were common. Today, 500-meter (1,640 feet) buildings are not usual.

More broadly, the forces of urbanization, economic growth, and massive technological improvements have meant that taller and taller buildings are economically rational. As demand for tall buildings rises, architects, engineers, suppliers, and developers are motivated to employ new methods and materials to make their buildings taller, lighter, and more functional. As a result, new technological “regimes” emerge that allow for breaking the old height barriers.

In the twenty-first century, record-breakers have proved profitable because they not only provide space for living and working but also help promote tourism and enhance local economic development. The mile-high will eventually emerge because technological innovations that make it cheaper to build while allowing for more functional spaces, combined with the place-making benefits of having the world’s tallest buildings, are driving developers to build ever upward.

Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images


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