Let the Rich Have Their Supertalls

American cities need to grow up.

A GIF of a skyscraper being built
The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: Jerusalem Demsas is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Every year, the word skyscraper sounds less like a metaphor and more like a description. Right now, the world’s tallest building—at 828 meters, or 2,717 feet—is Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. But if Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower is completed as planned, it will claim that mantle, reaching one kilometer, or 3,280 feet.

Properly, buildings that exceed 300 meters, or 984 feet, aren’t even skyscrapers but “supertalls”: an indication that linguistic creativity diminishes as the air thins. As Stefan Al writes in his new book, Supertall: How the World’s Tallest Buildings Are Reshaping Our Cities and Our Lives, we are living in the “era of the ‘supertalls.’” He notes that the number of supertalls has risen sharply over the past few years. In 2017, 15 new supertalls were built. Another 17 went up in 2018, and now, “with more than one hundred supertalls in the works from Melbourne to Moscow, there seems to be no stopping the supertall frenzy.”

My home city of Washington, D.C., has no supertalls. Its deficiencies on this point can be blamed on a 19th-century law implemented after the erection of the Cairo Hotel, a 164-foot building that at the time towered over the nation’s capital. New buildings in the city now are not allowed to exceed the Cairo’s height, and most are capped at just 130 feet. Although some contemporaries regarded the building with disgust—Metro Weekly wrote in 2003 that “its ghoulish veneer and scowling gargoyles were considered a blight on the neighborhood”—the Cairo soon became a central gathering place for socialites, and even Thomas Edison and F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed there. By its 100th birthday in 1994, it had been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Washington Post referred to it at the time as “a fashionable condominium” and noted that a local city-council member called it “a real monument to the area.”

Many critics of supertalls in the 21st century sound like those who snubbed the Cairo in the 19th. Top reader comments on New York Times articles about supertalls accuse the buildings of being “eyesores” and disfiguring the city’s skyline. Time and again, one concern overshadows the rest: “No longer will sunbathers and playing children be able to enjoy the afternoon sun … because of the enormous shadow of a supertall now in construction,” two architects lamented in a 2019 letter to the editor.

Certainly, some people voice reasonable concerns with these towering structures, including repair bills, inevitable elevator issues, and worrying mechanical problems. Because construction is a huge contributor to global carbon emissions, critics also point to the large emissions burden that supertalls place on countries attempting to combat climate change. Another central concern is inequality: One historian explained that “the awe that accompanies a new supertall is now tempered by the economic reality for many city residents that they simply can no longer afford to live in their beloved city.” Supertalls can be a symbol of growing inequality: While some urban residents pay more than half their income to live in small, overcrowded, and unsafe conditions, others get to live literally above it all, looking down on the rest of the city.

I don’t need you to love tall buildings, but I do want to explain why so much of the anger leveled against them ignores the very real benefits they provide. The ascendancy of the supertalls in part reflects the technological advances that made them possible and the excitement some developers and architects feel at building magnificent structures. But the real reason cities keep building up despite fierce opposition is that they have little choice.

Urbanization is perhaps the defining trend of the last century and the coming decades. More than half of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and in high-income nations, more than 80 percent of people do. This is a good thing.

When people live near one another, they are more productive. Workers and firms can more easily find each other if they are in close proximity. Imagine you are a theater director in a rural area. If you’re very lucky, the nearby town has a playhouse where you can work. Or maybe there’s not enough demand for your talents, and you instead work as an English teacher at a local high school. But if you live in a city, you can choose among multiple theaters. You may be able to bid up your wages (if multiple employers compete for your labor), and you also get to specialize. These benefits extend to employers. If you run a small-town theater, you have to hire whoever’s available. You can’t be picky. But in a large labor market, you can figure out the best fit for your company.

The gravitational pull exerted by cities on people not only makes people better off financially but sets the stage for diversity of thought, art, music, and ways of being. Diversity is a virtuous cycle; as economic forces pull people toward urban centers, density of people makes niche and specialty services and goods financially viable. In fact, density is a prerequisite for all of the benefits—cultural, political, consumptive—that we associate with cities. You cannot have a Broadway, a Hollywood, a Silicon Valley, a flourishing alternative-music scene, without density.

The benefits of cities are plentiful—but all those people working together need somewhere to live together. Cities can grow out, for a while, absorbing demand through sprawl. Cars have let workers migrate to single-family neighborhoods progressively farther away from cities’ central business districts. But as suburbia has filled up, land prices have skyrocketed. There’s a limit to how long workers are willing to commute. The alternative to building out? Building up.

Given the basic economic realities of urbanization, howling objections to height are a bit absurd.

First, the aesthetic case. I genuinely think many supertall buildings look cool, but I’m not an architecture critic, and I don’t think the basis for whether we build them should rest on my personal aesthetic preferences—or anyone else’s. These judgments shift over time. Many people exhibit a bias against the new and different that, if thoroughly respected, will destroy cities. Stagnation is poisonous to the urban landscape.

The Cairo is not the only tall building that was loathed by contemporaries and loved by their descendants. Gustave Eiffel’s Paris monument was protested by prominent artists such as the composer Charles Gounod, the writer Guy de Maupassant, the son of Alexandre Dumas (also a writer), and Charles Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opera. In a blistering letter, these and other artists protested the “useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which popular ill feeling, so often an arbiter of good sense and justice, has already christened the Tower of Babel … The Eiffel Tower that even the commercial Americans didn’t want, will without a doubt dishonor Paris.”

The artists also complained of the shadow that Eiffel’s tower would cast on the city. Now, I don’t know if you can determine the optimal amount of shadow cover that cities should strive to have. What I do know is that on a hot summer day in D.C., I observe most people walking on the side of the street that’s protected by tall buildings. At one protest objecting to the construction of a tall building, protesters themselves huddled in the shade.

No less than America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, once imagined a mile-high city. According to Al, Wright argued that “Manhattan could be razed ‘to one large green’ with only a few mile-high buildings. You could ‘sweep New York into the Hudson and build two of them in Central Park and that would be the city.’ Ten buildings could ‘rehouse almost the [island’s] entire office population.’”

This vision is, obviously, extreme. Other than some very weird corners of the internet, no one is suggesting that all human beings should be packed into supertalls. But Wright’s logic is worth examining, because he thought of the mile-high city as a feat not only of technology and design, but of conservation. And this brings me to the environmental case against supertalls. Instead of viewing large, concrete-intensive structures as oppositional to emissions goals, we should see them as complementary. Without skyscrapers, many of those offices and residences would still be built; they’d just take up more space.

Average household emissions rise further away from city center.

Al makes this point succinctly in comparing Manhattan with Phoenix, Arizona: “Manhattan has more skyscrapers, hence is more dependent on energy-intensive structures. Nevertheless, in the sprawling city of Phoenix, people need cars and miles and miles of energy and water lines. At the same time, dense urban development helps preserve land for environmental or agricultural benefits. Manhattan has more than twenty times the population density of Phoenix. If Manhattanites were spread out as much as people in Phoenix, they would require twenty times more land.”

According to the Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, reducing Americans’ fuel usage is primarily about reducing their vehicle miles traveled. He finds that “the average household living in a census tract with more than 10,000 people per square mile uses 687 gallons of petrol per year, while the average household living in an area with fewer than 1,000 per square mile uses 1,164 gallons of petrol per year.” He also finds marked disparities in electricity usage between urban and suburban areas, and the best of the lot are central-city residents who “use less electricity in 44 out of 48 metropolitan areas that we analyzed.”

The Rutgers economist Jason M. Barr looks at New York City and finds that “the worst emitters live in free-standing houses in the suburbs and supertall buildings in the center—though the suburbs are worse in this regard.” But this relationship is diminished when you control for the effect of income and driving behavior. Essentially, the key to knowing if a structure is efficient in regards to greenhouse-gas emissions “is to focus on two things: the average housing square foot per person in a neighborhood and its location relative to the central city.”​​​​​​

Denser cities consume less energy for transportation.

And that point raises the final critique I’d like to address: that these buildings are socially toxic because they’re playgrounds for the über-rich. Playgrounds for the rich have always existed, and always will. The question is: Without supertalls, what playground will the über-rich choose? Perhaps, they will convert brownstones into large single-family homes, worsening a dire supply crunch. Or maybe they’ll take the $20 million they would have spent on their Manhattan condo and move to a large estate in a suburban or rural area, where the visual impact of their consumption is minimized but their emissions toll will jump considerably.

American cities need to grow up.

Supertalls are, of course, not the answer to the housing crisis. As the NYU economist Arpit Gupta explained to me, gentle density is what’s most urgently needed to reduce pressure in the housing market. “The vast majority of people in Manhattan live below the 10th floor,” he told me. “Downtown Paris is about the same size and has the same population as Manhattan, with few people living above the sixth floor. So what that tells me is that ‘missing middle’ construction—in the form of townhomes, and apartments that don’t go above the sixth floor—can actually produce all the density you really need in a city.”

This “missing middle” housing is cheaper to construct than skyscrapers, meaning that these shorter buildings can pencil out for middle- and lower-income Americans. By contrast, the per-unit cost for skyscrapers will likely always exceed the budget of average-income workers.

But if gentle density is key to creating more sustainable cities, that doesn’t justify the vitriol against supertalls. Many technologies begin as playthings for the wealthy. The first cellphone cost more than $10,000 in today’s dollars; now you can buy a smartphone, which provides exponentially more value, for just a few hundred dollars. This is the path of technology: The rich often benefit first, but they also subsidize the cost of inferior products, eventually allowing newer, cheaper, and better options to emerge.

The innovations produced by building to the sky are still revealing themselves. Over the last century, Al writes, “we discovered how to make stronger, lighter structures with less material. We learned how to make our buildings withstand the strongest winds with aerodynamic design and tuned mass dampers. We found how to move people up safely, quickly, and smoothly in elevators—and soon they will travel diagonally and sideways.”

Apartment buildings, skyscrapers, and supertalls may never approximate Wright’s dream of a mile-high city. But the America we have today, characterized by sprawl, high housing prices, and congestion, is financially, politically, and environmentally unsustainable. We have to build up.