Region Forward Blog

Global Fridays: Skyscrapers as saviors?

Feb 18, 2011


Ed Glaesar Harvard economist and well-known urban thinker has a new book out that’s getting a lot of attention especially considering its subject matter. I mean seriously who would have thought that urban planning would get a segment on The Daily Show? The book is called Triumph of the City and in it Glaesar argues that the city has returned to its place as the center of economic activity in the U.S. at precisely the same time that megacities around the world such as Mumbai and Shanghai are coming into their own as financial and cultural hubs.

One of Glaesar’s primary points is that cities need to be unbridled – arguing that too many regulations have essentially crimped their style. Two of Glaesar’s key targets include building height regulations (the merits and demerits we’ve discussed before) and historic preservation. Glaesar argues that both restrictions prohibit cities from making the most efficient use of their space and driving up costs artificially especially in high demand cities like Paris and Washington. Glaesar can be persuasive in these arguments (read a summary piece he authored recently in The Atlantic).

However one could counter Glaesar arguing that building height restrictions have kept such cities dense and vibrant when they might otherwise have built lots of super-tall buildings with massive “dead zones” of non-intensively used space between them. This is probably less likely in an older more compact city like Paris but many American cities were built in the age of the automobile meaning that skyscrapers and urbanism are not necessarily one and the same (look at Houston a city with lots of really tall skyscrapers but very little density and urbanism). This is one of the critiques of Glaesar’s book expressed by Lydia DePillis of the Washington CityPaper’s Housing Complex and also by The New Urban Network’s Robert Steuteville.


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