I feel like a lot of readers are misunderstanding the argument Ed Glaeser is making concerning the value of skyscrapers. Glaeser is arguing, in a nutshell, that density is valuable and so society should embrace taller buildings. People then respond, “But you don’t have to build tall to be dense…just look at Paris!” Here’s Richard Green:
I just read Ed Glaeser’s Atlantic piece on skyscrapers (which is excerpted from his newÂ book on cities that I need to read).Â I agree with nearly everything he says, particularly about the need for tall buildings in Mumbai, but I also think it is worth mentioning that one can get a lot of density without a lot of skyscrapers.Â The municipality of Paris has a residential density of about 54,000 people per square mile; Manhattan has a residential densisity of about 71,000 people per square mile.Â Paris has about 1.7 million workers, while Manhattan has about 2.1 million workers.Â Yet as Ed notes, Manhattan has lots of skyscrapers, and Paris has few, and almost none outside of Le Defense.
This comparison encourages a lot of people (not necessarily Richard Green) to decide that we don’t need skyscrapers. Defenders of the Washington height limit often fall into this category. But there are two points worth making in response to this. One is that it would be harder to build Paris in America than it would be to build Manhattan. Paris’ tiny streets are more hostile to the automobile than anything in the US, including Manhattan. And Paris has relatively tall buildings over a vast area; it’s easier for me to imagine Washingtonians tolerating 30-story buildings downtown than 10-story buildings in a central neighborhood like Brookland. If you need 10-story buildings in every little Brookland-like neighborhood to generate the same density you achieve with 30-story buildings in a central business district, then you can basically forget about generating high densities in American cities. The NIMBYs are just too strong.
The second point is that Glaeser isn’t directing people to go out and build skyscrapers. He’s not a planner. He’s merely saying that, yes, allowing developers to meet demand with supply will often yield tall buildings, and that’s a good thing. It will increase densities relative to the alternative, supply-limited case, and it will improve affordability relative to the alternative, supply-limited case. People who read Glaeser lauding density and who go on to tout the advantages of Paris get his argument precisely backwards. Because density is good, it’s costly — in terms of the metropolitan economy and affordability — to adopt Parisian limits on growth. Unless your city is one of the architectural jewels of the modern world, and if you live in America it isn’t, you should work very hard to avoid such constraints.