On skyscrapers and streets

Download PDF

The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has recently generated buzz with his book extolling the virtues of city life, site  The Triumph of the City. One of the former Manhattanite’s arguments is that restrictions on the permissible height of buildings in a neighbourhood effectively also sets a ceiling on the supply of space. A constrained supply of space, abortion coupled with a desirable neighbourhood, click tends to make demand outstrip supply, with predictable consequences on the cost of property in the area.

Glaeser is a reluctant critic of Paris’ exquisite mid-rise urbanism, linking the constrained supply of housing to astronomic property prices that force out ordinary people. Whilst admiring the skyscrapers of suburban La Défense as an “inspired” solution to the lack of space in Paris, Glaeser regards the undesirability of building skyscrapers in central Paris as an extreme case due to the city’s charm, and urges cities in the developing world, such as Mumbai, to build up rather than out.

Yet Glaeser, as befits his profession, looks at cities mainly with an economist’s eye.
What thrills him about La Défense, for example, is that “it seems to have all of the economic excitement that we would expect from such a mass of skilled workers.” Another telling comment is:

“La Défense is as vertical as central Paris is flat. It has about 35 million square feet of commercial space and the feel of an American office park. Except for the distant view of the Arc [de Triomphe], administrative assistants drinking lattes in a Starbucks there could easily be in a bigger version of Crystal City, Virginia.”

This is not intended to be damning…

Indeed, for Glaeser “the key issue with La Défense is whether it is too far away” from the city centre. Yet it does raise the intriguing question of to what degree the charm of central Paris, and the apparent lack of charm of La Défense, may be related to their respective built forms.

However, the concentration of wealth in central Paris and the concentration of poverty in parts of its suburbs is certainly a thorny problem. Yet whilst the relationship between supply and demand may be uncontroversial, it does not operate in a simple fashion, especially not in globally-admired cities such as Paris: a minor expansion of housing supply in an otherwise tight housing market may just cause a bidding war between wealthy investors, exacerbating the problem rather than alleviating it. To lower prices merely through increased supply might require a degree of expansion unpalatable both politically and in terms of world heritage. In many cities this may be the case.

Yet today cities more populous than Haussmann could have imagined are being built across the world; for a variety of reasons it is important to limit these cities’ sprawl. The use of skyscrapers is an extremely useful option. Tall buildings will inescapably block out some sunlight, and thus somewhat diminish the charm of the streets. However, every policy involves some trade-offs, and the most important questions are not whether we should have skyscrapers or not, but, where they are required, who will use them, for what, and — perhaps most importantly — how does the building meet the street?

In this video the much-missed Paul Newman explains some of the ways a skyscraper can contribute, not detract, from a charming streetscape. I heartily recommend it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *