The history of the skyscrapers + what makes modern cities so expensive

By way of Market Urbanism is a feature article in The Atlantic by Edward Glaeser about the history of tall cities like New York, Chicago, Paris and Mumbai. Glaeser is an economist by trade and thus talks at length about the incentives and disincentives of building height restrictions and the challenges of preserving historical architecture while simultaneously serving the need for new housing spaces.

The Atlantic – How Skyscrapers Can Save the City

In the late Middle Ages, the wool-making center of Bruges became one of the first places where a secular structure, a 354-foot belfry built to celebrate cloth-making, towered over nearby churches. But elsewhere another four or five centuries passed before secular structures surpassed religious ones. With its 281-foot spire, Trinity Church was the tallest building in New York City until 1890. Perhaps that year, when Trinity’s spire was eclipsed by a skyscraper built to house Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, should be seen as the true start of the irreligious 20th century. At almost the same time, Paris celebrated its growing wealth by erecting the 1,000-foot Eiffel Tower, which was 700 feet taller than the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.

For centuries, ever taller buildings have made it possible to cram more and more people onto an acre of land. Yet until the 19th century, the move upward was a moderate evolution, in which two-story buildings were gradually replaced by four- and six-story buildings. Until the 19th century, heights were restricted by the cost of building and the limits on our desire to climb stairs. Church spires and belfry towers could pierce the heavens, but only because they were narrow and few people other than the occasional bell-ringer had to climb them. Tall buildings became possible in the 19th century, when American innovators solved the twin problems of safely moving people up and down and creating tall buildings without enormously thick lower walls.

Elisha Otis didn’t invent the elevator; Archimedes is believed to have built one 2,200 years ago. And Louis XV is said to have had a personal lift installed in Versailles so that he could visit his mistress. But before the elevator could become mass transit, it needed a good source of power, and it needed to be safe. Matthew Boulton and James Watt provided the early steam engines used to power industrial elevators, which were either pulled up by ropes or pushed up hydraulically. As engines improved, so did the speed and power of elevators that could haul coal out of mines or grain from boats.

But humans were still wary of traveling long distances upward in a machine that could easily break and send them hurtling downward. Otis, tinkering in a sawmill in Yonkers, took the danger out of vertical transit. He invented a safety brake and presented it in 1854 at New York’s Crystal Palace Exposition. He had himself hoisted on a platform, and then, dramatically, an axman severed the suspending rope. The platform dropped slightly, then came to a halt as the safety brake engaged.

The Otis elevator became a sensation. In the 1870s, it enabled pathbreaking structures, like Richard Morris Hunt’s Tribune Building in New York, to reach 10 stories. Across the Atlantic, London’s 269-foot St. Pancras Station was taller even than the Tribune Building. But the fortress-like appearance of St. Pancras hints at the building’s core problem. It lacks the critical cost-reducing ingredient of the modern skyscraper: a load-bearing steel skeleton. Traditional buildings, like St. Pancras or the Tribune Building, needed extremely strong lower walls to support their weight. The higher a building went, the thicker its lower walls had to be, and that made costs almost prohibitive, unless you were building a really narrow spire.

When Baron Haussmann thoroughly rebuilt Paris in the mid-19th century at the behest of Napoleon III, he did things unthinkable in a more democratic age: He evicted vast numbers of the poor, turning their homes into the wide boulevards that made Paris monumental. He lopped off a good chunk of the Luxembourg Gardens to create city streets. He tore down ancient landmarks, including much of the Île de la Cité. He spent 2.5 billion francs on his efforts, which was 44 times the total budget of Paris in 1851. All of that spending and upheaval turned Paris from an ancient and somewhat dilapidated city of great poverty into an urban resort for the growing haute bourgeoisie.

He also made Paris a bit taller, boosting the Bourbon-era height limit on buildings from 54 feet to 62 feet. Still, relative to cities built in the elevator-rich 20th century, Haussmann’s Paris stayed short, because people needed to climb stairs. Height restrictions were lifted in 1967, and construction of Paris’s first proper skyscraper, the 689-foot Montparnasse Tower, didn’t begin until 1969. Two years later, Les Halles, a popular open-air marketplace, was wiped away and the futuristic Centre Pompidou museum was begun. But these changes rankled those Parisians who had gotten used to a static city. The Montparnasse Tower was widely loathed, and the lesson drawn was that skyscrapers must never again mar central Paris. Les Halles was sorely missed, in much the same way that many New Yorkers mourned the demise of the old Penn Station. France is a far more regulatory country than America, and when its rulers decide they don’t want change, change will not occur. In 1974, a height limit of 83 feet was imposed in central Paris.

But while these rules restricted height in old Paris, they let buildings grow on the periphery. Today, the majority of Paris’s skyscrapers are in relatively dense but far-flung complexes like La Défense, which is three miles northwest of the Arc de Triomphe. 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, administrative assistants drinking lattes in a Starbucks there could easily be in a bigger version of Crystal City, Virginia.

La Défense addresses the need to balance preservation and growth by segregating skyscrapers. In some senses, it is an inspired solution. People working there can still get to old Paris in about 20 minutes by Métro or in an hour on foot. That Métro line means that businesses in La Défense can connect with the all-important French bureaucracy that remains centered in the old city. La Défense is one of Europe’s most concentrated commercial centers, and it seems to have all of the economic excitement that we would expect from such a mass of skilled workers. The sector enables Paris to grow, while keeping the old city pristine.

But building in La Défense is not a perfect substitute for new construction in the more-desirable central areas of Paris, where short supply keeps housing prices astronomical. The natural thing is to have tall buildings in the center, where demand is greatest, not on the edge. The lack of new housing in central Paris means that small apartments can sell for $1 million or more. Hotel rooms often cost more than $500 a night. If you want to be in the center of the city, you’ll have to pay for it. People are willing to pay those high prices, because Paris is so charming, but they wouldn’t have to if the city’s rulers hadn’t decided to limit the amount of housing that can be built in the area. Average people are barred from living in central Paris just as surely as if the city had put up a gate and said that no middle-income people can enter.

For the world’s oldest, most beautiful cities, La Défense provides a viable model. Keep the core areas historic, but let millions of square feet be built nearby. As long as building in the high-rise district is sufficiently unfettered, then that area provides a safety valve for the region as a whole. The key issue with La Défense is whether it is too far away. Its distance from the old city keeps central Paris pristine, but it deprives too many people of the pleasures of strolling to a traditional café for lunch.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to balance the benefits of providing additional desirable space with the need to preserve a beautiful older city. I wish that some developments like La Défense had been built closer to the center of Paris. But I also understand those who think Paris is so precious that more space should be maintained between the developments and Haussmann’s boulevards.

The success of our cities, the world’s economic engines, increasingly depends on abstruse decisions made by zoning boards and preservation committees. It certainly makes sense to control construction in dense urban spaces, but I would replace the maze of regulations now limiting new construction with three simple rules.

First, cities should replace the lengthy and uncertain permitting processes now in place with a simple system of fees. If tall buildings create costs by blocking out light or views, then form a reasonable estimate of those costs and charge the builder appropriately. The money from those fees could then be given to the people who are suffering, such as the neighbors who lose light from a new construction project.

I don’t mean to suggest that such a system would be easy to design. There is plenty of room for debate about the costs associated with buildings of different heights. People would certainly disagree about the size of the neighboring areas that should receive compensation. But reasonable rules could be developed that would then be universally applied; for instance, every new building in New York would pay some amount per square foot in compensation costs, in exchange for a speedy permit. Some share of the money could go to the city treasury, and the rest would go to people within a block of the new edifice.

A simple tax system would be far more transparent and targeted than the current regulatory maze. Today, many builders negotiate our system by hiring expensive lawyers and lobbyists and buying political influence. It would be far better for them to just write a check to the rest of us. Allowing more building doesn’t have to be a windfall for developers; sensible, straightforward regulations can make new development good for the neighborhood and the city.

Second, historic preservation should be limited and well defined. Landmarking a masterpiece like the Flatiron Building or the old Penn Station is sensible. Preserving a post-war glazed-brick building is absurd. But where do you draw the line between those two extremes? My own preference is that, in a city like New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission should have a fixed number of buildings, perhaps 5,000, that it may protect. The commission can change its chosen architectural gems, but it needs to do so slowly. It shouldn’t be able to change its rules overnight to stop construction in some previously unprotected area. If the commission wants to preserve a whole district, then let it spread its 5,000-building mandate across the area.

Perhaps 5,000 buildings are too few; but without some sort of limit, any regulatory agency will constantly try to increase its scope. The problem gets thornier in places like Paris, practically all of which is beloved worldwide. In such cases, the key is to find some sizable area, reasonably close to the city center, that can be used for ultra-dense development. Ideally, this space would be near enough to let its residents enjoy walking to the beautiful streets of the older city.

Finally, individual neighborhoods should have more power to protect their special character. Some blocks might want to exclude bars. Others might want to encourage them. Rather than regulate neighborhoods entirely from the top down, let individual neighborhoods enforce their own, limited rules that are adopted only with the approval of a large share of residents. In this way, ordinary citizens, rather than the planners in City Hall, would get a say over what happens around them.

Great cities are not static—they constantly change, and they take the world along with them. When New York and Chicago and Paris experienced great spurts of creativity and growth, they reshaped themselves to provide new structures that could house new talent and new ideas. Cities can’t force change with new buildings—as the Rust Belt’s experience clearly shows. But if change is already happening, new building can speed the process along.

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