Asia Dreams in Skyscrapers

The skyline of Shenzhen, China, in 2017. Credit Justin Chin/Bloomberg, via Getty Images
The skyline of Shenzhen, China, in 2017. Credit Justin Chin/Bloomberg, via Getty Images

The skyscraper was born in the United States, but in recent years, it has grown and flourished in Asia. Countries there recognize that to be seen as a player on the global stage, it helps to have tall buildings.

Over a century ago, New York and Chicago demonstrated that the skyscraper is, fundamentally, a solution to an economic problem: how to allow for hundreds, if not thousands, of people and businesses to be at the same place at the same time. Urban clustering, especially in a high-tech world, is more important than ever. By promoting density, skyscrapers confer a competitive advantage and allow a city to become a beacon of commerce.

In April, President Xi Jinping of China announced plans for a new city, Xiongan, not far from Beijing. A kind of Chinese field of dreams, Xiongan is to be built on what is now hundreds of square miles of farmland and towns, house millions of people and be a center for technology jobs. Like the cities it’s being modeled after — Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, and Shanghai, particularly its Pudong neighborhood — it may someday claim the world’s tallest skyscrapers. The Ping An Finance tower in Shenzhen, completed this year, at 115 stories, is the fourth-tallest building in the world, while the Shanghai Tower, completed in 2015, at 128 stories, is the second-tallest skyscraper on the planet.

Since the 1990s, the world’s tallest buildings have been built in the East. The current prize holder — the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (828 meters, or about 2,717 feet, 2010) — will be soon be surpassed by the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia (1,000 meters, or about 3,281 feet, 2020). Nine of the 10 world’s tallest buildings are in Asia. In addition, the continent now has more 150-meter (about 492 feet) or taller buildings than the rest of the continents combined.

An awe-inspiring skyline is a city’s announcement that it is open for business and confident in its future growth. Supertall structures stand as “place makers” in the planning process, since they create neighborhood landmarks to draw companies, residents, tourists and foreign direct investment. China is now a nation full of capitalists. Arab workers are no longer just oil drillers, but global traders and financiers.

But just as important, cities that have record-breaking buildings are not just constructing super-tall monoliths. There is a strong correlation between the number of tall buildings of all sizes and the likelihood a city will have a supertall building; heights and frequencies are strongly related. The Burj Khalifa and Shanghai Tower, for example, are the most visible signs that a city embraces skyscrapers more broadly to enhance economic growth and the quality of life of residents and companies.

Consider where these nations stand. Over the last decade, the average annual gross domestic product growth rates in India, China, Indonesia and Malaysia were, in most years, more than three times that of the United States. As part of this development, nations expand their financial and banking sectors; research shows that skyscrapers are needed for this to happen.

Furthermore, China is witnessing what is arguably the greatest internal migration in human history. In 1979, only about 19 percent of its residents lived in urban areas; today that figure is about 57 percent, and this movement shows no sign of slowing. To put this in perspective, the number of Chinese residents who have moved to cities since 1979 (600 million) is greater than the total current population of North America (580 million). By comparison, in 1900, urbanization in the United States was at 40 percent; by 1970, it was up to 74 percent, and has since inched up to 82 percent.

Given this rapid growth, governments generally have two options: They can encourage tall buildings to satisfy the urban demand, or they can restrict building heights, which then increases sprawl, congestion and the distances between people. As a result, Asian governments establish land-use rules that increase density, as well as sponsor international architecture competitions, provide subsidies or simply lend support. Across China, we see a strong correlation between the heights of cities’ skyscrapers and the size of their populations and local economies.

Interestingly, the Chinese government has also indirectly created political incentives for their construction. Because of one-party rule, career promotion within the Communist Party is based on the ability to “get things done” — and building skyscrapers can serve that purpose. Recent research suggests that younger local officials build more skyscrapers and invest in more infrastructure to enhance their standing within the government.

In the United States, high-rise construction remains controversial. Though things are starting to change, at its core, the country remains dedicated to promoting single-family homes in the suburbs and sprawling car-dependent office parks. Many municipalities put up hurdles for tall building construction, allowing them only in densest parts of the central city. As a result, we see a flowering of new supertall buildings there, but they are frequently derided as “safe deposit boxes with views.” Because of the negative perceptions, it has become difficult to have conversations about how they can make cities more resilient and less dependent on fossil fuels.

What is the future of the skyscraper? As long as Asian countries pursue lifestyles similar to that of the West, skyscrapers will continue to be built, as they not only help foster economic growth, but also establish a city’s skyline, which then becomes part of a city’s identity and character.

As technological improvements make building skyscrapers easier and faster, the race for the world’s tallest building will continue as well. Since 1890, their heights have grown, on average, about 17 feet per year. Statistically speaking, this suggests that a mile-high building will be built in the middle of the 22nd century. But don’t tell that to Tokyo, which wants to get there first by 2045.

Jason M. Barr, a professor of economics at Rutgers University-Newark, is the author of Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers.

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